Two and a half years after signing a deal aimed at averting a damaging crisis along the Colorado River, water officials from California, Arizona and Nevada are discussing plans to take even less water from the shrinking river and leave it in Lake Mead in an effort to prevent the reservoir from falling to dangerously low levels.
Representatives of water agencies from the three states said they are firming up the details of a deal that would leave an additional 500,000 acre-feet of water in the reservoir next year, and the same amount again in 2023 — about double the quantity of water used annually by Las Vegas and the rest of southern Nevada.
For California, the deal would mean participating in water reductions prior to Lake Mead reaching levels that would otherwise trigger mandatory cuts.
The talks took on urgency this summer after federal projections showed growing risks of Lake Mead falling to critically low levels, despite plans for mandatory cutbacks throughout the Southwest that the states agreed to in 2019.
With the reservoir in a first-ever shortage and those cuts still insufficient, water management officials settled on a goal of together leaving half a million acre-feet of additional water in the reservoir instead of sending it flowing to farms, cities and tribal lands. The stored water would be roughly as much as 1.5 million average single-family households use in a year.
“We’ve got to stabilize the lake with this plan,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. He said representatives of California, Arizona and Nevada developed the framework of the deal within about two months after they saw projections showing growing risks of Lake Mead dropping to lows that would trigger much larger water reductions in all three states.
“I think coming together in that short a period of time is indicative of urgency we’re feeling to do more,” Buschatzke said. “If the lake keeps falling, cuts are going to be deeper and deeper and deeper. So I think it’s indicative of the risks.”
The deal would nearly double the reductions in planned water deliveries next year among the three states beyond those already planned under the 2019 agreement, called the Drought Contingency Plan. This new proposal, dubbed the 500+ Plan, would partially involve securing money to pay some water users to voluntarily relinquish water.
The water would come from various sources, including farmers who would be paid for leaving portions of their land dry, tribes that would contribute water supplies, and water agencies that would leave some water in Lake Mead instead of taking it out as planned.
Negotiations on the details are continuing, and officials from California and Arizona said they hope to have the overarching agreement ready to be signed next month at [the Colorado River Water Users Association] conference in Las Vegas.
Arizona has pledged $40 million toward the deal. Board members of the Southern Nevada Water Authority are scheduled to consider approving up to $20 million in contributions this week.
The board of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is scheduled to consider the proposed agreement next month…
If the details of the proposal come together as planned, 500,000 acre-feet of water over two years would translate into water levels about 16 feet higher in Lake Mead…
For now, the talks have focused on lining up funds and water for two years. But Buschatzke said it’s intended to be a five-year plan, lasting until the current agreement expires at the end of 2026, by which time the states will need to have negotiated new rules for dealing with shortages.
If the winter were to bring heavy snow to the Rocky Mountains, it could still help ease the shortages. But the region’s water managers said they’ve decided to plan for more of the dismal runoff they’ve seen in the watershed during the past two years of extreme heat and parched conditions.
Bill Hasencamp, MWD’s manager of Colorado River resources, said if such extreme dryness persists for another year or two, then Mead could end up at such low levels that cuts would become “unmanageable.”
When Buschatzke testified in a congressional hearing on the Colorado River last month, he noted that snowpack in the Colorado River Basin peaked at 89% of average this year, but runoff in the watershed was only 33% of average.
“This phenomenon is likely the result of the hotter and drier conditions caused by climate change,” Buschatzke said in his written testimony. “This trend is one that water managers must take into account as we plan for the future of the Colorado River.”
Since 2000, the Colorado River has been ravaged by a series of mostly dry years, which have been compounded by the heating of the planet with the burning of fossil fuels. In that time, the flow of the Colorado River has declined nearly 20% below the 20th century average.
Scientists have estimated that about half the decrease in runoff in the watershed since 2000 has been caused by unprecedented warming. And this heat-driven aridification is projected to significantly worsen as temperatures continue to climb.
Brad Udall, a water and climate scientist at Colorado State University, recently likened the planned water reductions under the existing deal to a parachute — one that is too small and being opened too close to the ground…
Given the alarming declines in the river’s reservoirs, the flaw with the parachute analogy is that the end of the story would put the parachutist safely on the ground, Udall said.
“We’re landing on the edge of a cliff, if you will. And there’s still further to fall. We need another parachute here,” Udall said.
Hopefully that next parachute will be ready well before 2027, he said, when the existing rules expire, and the Southwest needs to have long-term plans in place for adapting to a hotter, drier watershed and a river that yields less water.
No amount of planning or legislation can make more water — but it can help the parched Western Slope make more use of the water it has.
The trillion-dollar Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act authorizes, as part of an overall $55 billion for water infrastructure, $8.3 billion under its Western Water Infrastructure title for the Bureau of Reclamation between Fiscal Years 2020 — 2026.
On the laundry list of designated funds for Western Water Infrastructure are $3.2 billion for aging infrastructure, $1.5 billion for storage, $1 billion for the Drought Contingency Plan on the Colorado River and $400 million for WaterSMART and energy efficiency grants.
“All in all, it’s certainly the most meaningful investment in Western water resources that we’ve seen in my generation,” said Zane Kessler, director of Government Relations for the Colorado River District. The district sees an opportunity to fight for some of those dollars to flow into western Colorado, he said — and there are several meaningful investments that Colorado and the Western Slope are well-equipped to pursue…
The act provides additional funding to the Aging Infrastructure Account created in 2020’s Consolidated Appropriations bill. This funding helps the Bureau of Reclamation provide direct loans to finance the non-federal share of major, nonrecurring maintenance of water infrastructure owned by the bureau, in water projects across the West that require major upgrades or replacement.
“As those facilities, most of which are more than 50 years old, continue to age, the issue of storing and delivering water effectively, efficiently and in a timely matter only increases,” a summary from The Ferguson Group states. The Ferguson Group represents the Family Farm Alliance, of which the Colorado River District is a member.
Of the $3.2 billion, $100 million is to be available for dam rehabilitation, reconstruction or replacement. Another $100 million is to be available for reserved or transferred works that have suffered a critical failure, per the summary.
Water storage, groundwater storage and conveyance projects receive a $1.05 billion boost and of that, $100 million is to fund grants to plan and build small-surface water and groundwater storage projects.
There is $1 billion available for water projects authorized by Congress before July 1 of this year in accordance with the Reclamation Rural Water Supply Act of 2006.
The river district is pleased overall with the package of options the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act opens up, Kessler said, and it will be working to bring some of those dollars here.
The infrastructure act’s passage comes at a time of dire drought in the Gunnison Basin and Colorado.
Earlier this year, Blue Mesa Reservoir was drawn down a total of 36,000 acre-feet between August and October and Flaming Gorge in Utah released 125,000 acre-feet. Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico is set to have released 20,000 by December — a trio of infusions mandated by the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement to keep hydropower operational at Lake Powell…
The earlier drawdown at Blue Mesa took 17,000 acre feet from the reservoir in August; 16,000 acre feet in September and 3,000 acre feet in October, according to BuRec numbers.
That provided the requisite 36,000 acre feet to Powell from Blue Mesa, but at the end of October, Powell was 156 feet from full pool, with an elevation of 3,544.25 acre feet. It had 7.18 million acre feet in storage — 30% of live capacity, as Catlin noted.
He and others eye the weather and potential snowpack. They wait. They hope.
Catlin said that as it is, the entire Gunnison Basin is drying so much, it’s hard to say what the overall impact might be — but more than agriculture would suffer…
Blue Mesa has about 218,000 acre feet in storage, he said. Taylor Park, another pot of water in the BuRec-managed Aspinall Unit, sits “OK” at 59,000 acre feet in storage, Knight said. Ridgway Reservoir has 63,000 acre feet in storage, a bit low, but in light of how dry the year was, not as bad it could be, he also said…
Blue Mesa’s elevation sat at 7,431 this week — ideally, it would reach 7,490 by the end of December.
“We’ll be nowhere close to that,” [Erik] Knight said.
Already, there is not enough water flowing through the Colorado River to meet all of the demands on the watershed, which spans seven U.S. states and crosses into Mexico. And as the climate changes, scientists warn that those who depend on the watershed should plan to receive even less water each year…
Already, the Lower Colorado River Basin states that rely on Lake Mead — Arizona, California and Nevada — have been meeting to discuss and find funding for a program that would keep more water in the reservoir in an attempt to stave off further shortages and cuts. That plan would keep about 500,000 acre-feet in the reservoir next year and in 2023…
The states came together to develop the plan as part of a consultation clause in an existing 2019 agreement, known as the Drought Contingency Plan. That plan builds off of a set of operating guidelines for the river, approved in 2007 and set to expire in 2026. At the same time that water officials from the seven Colorado River states tackle near-term issues, they are all positioning to negotiate a new set of guidelines.
The Colorado River is governed by a series of overlapping laws, contracts, compacts and agreements, including the guidelines. Working within these structures, the states face a major challenge — to reduce use on the river and prepare for the worst-case scenario of a future with far less water to go around. Next month, water officials from across the basin are set to meet in Las Vegas to discuss that challenge and other issues facing the river.
John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said he is “cautiously optimistic” that the states will be able to find a way to lower use “because of the structures we’ve already put in place.” He noted that if Lake Mead were to hit 1025 feet above sea level, current agreements would already trigger cuts of about 1.3 million acre-feet of water.
The Nevada Independent spoke to Entsminger about the negotiations and how dry of a future Colorado River water officials should plan for. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
What do you see as the greatest challenge facing the Colorado River moving forward?
I hate to be obvious, but the biggest challenge for the river is we have a lot less water than people have legal entitlements.
How does that play into discussions around management as they’re evolving right now?
It makes the interstate and international discussions much more difficult, because really what you’re ultimately doing is negotiating to divide up a far smaller pie than what was believed to be the case in the 20th century.
You mentioned not that long ago, testifying in Congress, that “the river community is far from a consensus about how dry of a future to plan for.” What are some of the differing opinions right now? And where are people on establishing that baseline of what the future looks like for the river?
I was on a panel at the University of Colorado Law School within the last six weeks or so. And a couple people on the panel were asked that question of how dry a future should we be planning for, and I said I thought an 11 million acre-feet annual flow of the river is probably a good place to start based upon what I’ve heard from folks like Jonathan Overpeck and Brad Udall and other smart climate scientists.
But there were some folks on that panel that threw out a number of 13 to 14 million acre-feet, which, frankly, is quite a bit more water than the average of the last 20 years. So I think just from that exchange, you can see that there isn’t currently a consensus on what sort of worst-case scenario should we be planning for, as we negotiate operating guidelines for post-2026.
Let’s take that number, 11 million acre-feet. What would it mean in terms of water use to get to that number?
As a basin (seven states plus the country of Mexico), we’re currently using about 14 [million acre-feet]. So it would mean finding a way to cut current uses by three million acre-feet and not add any new uses, at least without retiring a commensurate amount of existing uses.
Knowing how hard it is to reduce use, that sounds like a very big challenge. Do you think that’s an achievable goal?
That’s the amount of water that Mother Nature gives us. We don’t really have a choice whether or not to achieve it. You have to find a way to live within the amount of water that nature actually gives you.
FromColorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):
Leaders of 20 Tribes in the Colorado River basin signed a letter to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, urging for inclusion in the upcoming negotiations on how to manage the Colorado River system in a changing climate.
“As the legal structure exists in terms of the policy of the Colorado River, we don’t have any formal inclusion,” said Daryl Vigil, a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation with Jemez Pueblo and Zia Pueblo affiliation.
Vigil is the water administrator for Jicarilla Apache Nation and the co-facilitator of the Water and Tribes Initiative, a group of Tribal members and water experts working together to build capacity of Tribes to participate in Colorado River negotiations. The efforts of the initiative helped create the letter to Haaland.
Leaders of the two Tribes in Colorado, Chairman Manuel Heart of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Chairman Melvin Baker of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, both signed the letter.
When the Colorado River Compact was signed in 1922 by the seven states in the basin, the Tribes were not included in the allocation of Colorado River water. Since then, the states have continued to leave the 30 federally recognized Tribes in the basin out of the decision making process on how to manage the river.
In 2007, the states adopted interim river management guidelines to respond to worsening drought conditions without input from the Tribes. The guidelines will be replaced by a new framework in 2026.
The letter to Secretary Haaland calls for the Tribes to have an “essential role” throughout the process of developing the new guidelines.
Vigil said since the Tribes are sovereign governments, they should be invited to a “sovereign table that doesn’t exist” to discuss how the Colorado River is managed. Instead, the states act as a trustee to represent tribal water interests, he said.
The Colorado River is a vital lifeline for the arid U.S. Southwest. It supplies water to seven states, Mexico, 29 Indian reservations and millions of acres of irrigated farmland. The river and its tributaries support 16 million jobs and provide drinking water to Denver, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and Tucson – in all, 40 million people.
These rivers also course through several of the world’s most iconic national parks, including the Grand Canyon in Arizona and Canyonlands in Utah. Today millions of people visit the Colorado River Basin to fish, boat and explore.
Southwestern states, tribes and Mexico share the Colorado’s water under the century-old 1922 Colorado Compact and updates to it. But today, because of climate change and rapid development, there is an enormous gap between the amount of water the compact allocates to parties and the amount that is actually in the river. With users facing unprecedented water shortages, the compact is hopelessly inadequate to deal with current and future realities.
I have studied water resource development for 35 years and written extensively about Native American waterrights and the future of America’s rivers. As I see it, the compact rests on three fundamental errors that now plague efforts to develop a new vision for the region. I believe the most productive way forward is for states and tribes to negotiate a new agreement that reflects 21st-century realities.
Flawed data and allocations
The compact commissioners made two fatal blunders when they allocated water in 1922. First, they appraised the river’s volume based on inaccurate data that wildly overestimated it. Actual annual historic flows were far below what was needed to satisfy the dictates of the compact.
There is evidence that the commissioners did this purposefully: Reaching an agreement was easier if there was more water to go around. This strategy guaranteed that the compact would allocate more water than was actually in the river, a situation now referred to as the “structural deficit.”
Second, the compact allocated water in fixed amounts rather than percentages of the river’s actual flow. That approach would be viable if river flow were constant and the agreement were based on sound science. But the Colorado’s flow is highly variable.
The compact divided the river artificially into an Upper Basin (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico) and a Lower Basin (Arizona, Nevada and California), and allocated 7.5 million acre-feet of water to each basin. An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot, or about 325,000 gallons.
In 1944, a treaty allocated an additional 1.5 million acre-feet to Mexico, for a total of 16.5 million acre-feet. However, actual flow has typically been below that amount. River volume at the time of the compact was about 18 million acre-feet per year, but the 20th-century average was closer to 14.8 million acre-feet. And then things got much worse.
That month, the Bureau of Reclamation declared an official shortage, which will force Arizona, Nevada and Mexico to make significant cuts in water use. In short, the original fixed allocations are no longer anchored in reality.
In my view, a much better approach would be to allocate water among the states and tribes in percentages, based on a five-year rolling average that would change as the river’s flow changes. Without such a shift, the compact will merely perpetuate a hydrological fallacy that leads water users to claim water that does not exist.
No Native participation
Beyond these errors, the compact also rests on a fundamental injustice. The 30 tribal nations in the Colorado River Basin are the river’s original users, and their reservations encompass huge swaths of land. But they were completely left out of the 1922 allocations.
Tribes have gone to court to claim a share of the Colorado’s water and have won significant victories, beginning with the landmark 1963 Arizona v. California ruling, in which the U.S. Supreme Court recognized water rights for five Indian reservations in the Colorado River Basin. The tribes continued to press their claims through numerous negotiated settlements, starting in 1978 and continuing to this day. They now have rights to over 2 million acre-feet of water in the Lower Basin and 1.1 million acre-feet in the Upper Basin. And 12 tribes have unresolved claims that could total up to 405,000 acre-feet.
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I see these discussions as an excellent opportunity to discard the compact’s unworkable provisions and negotiate a new agreement that responds to the unprecedented challenges now affecting the Southwest. As I see it, an agreement negotiated by and for white men, based on egregiously erroneous data, in an age when people drove Model T cars cannot possibly serve as the foundation for a dramatically different future.
In my view, the 1922 compact is now an albatross that can only inhibit innovation. Eliminating fixed rights to water that doesn’t actually exist could spur members to negotiate a new, science-based agreement that is fairer, more inclusive and more efficient and sustainable.
“We can’t ignore that science any longer” — John Fleck
“If you don’t understand the nature of the problem you’re going to come up with a solution that’s less than adequate” — Brad Udall
From PBS: “The Colorado River runs nearly fifteen hundred miles, winding through seven states and Mexico. It supplies drinking water to nearly 40 million people, irrigates nearly 4 million acres of farmland and attracts millions of nature lovers to scenic Grand Canyon vistas. And it is on the brink. A 20 year mega-drought — exacerbated by climate change — is squeezing the Colorado dry. It’s a crisis for the people of the Southwest and a “canary in the coal mine” for us all.”
FromThe Colorado Sun (Jason Blevins). Click through for the cool photos, here’s an excerpt:
After more than a half-hour splashing through the dank dark of one of the world’s longest irrigation tunnels, Dennis Veo grins in the sunshine showering the cliffs of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River…
The 120-year-old, 5.8-mile tunnel was the largest irrigation tunnel in the country when it opened in 1909. It was also the first major transmountain diversion in the U.S., becoming a model for moving Western water beneath mountains, connecting wet basins with dry deserts.
Today, the Gunnison Tunnel can move more than 500,000 acre-feet of water a year, more than the entire Eastern Slope draws from the Upper Colorado River Basin.
That water, roughly 1,150 cubic-feet-per-second when filled to the ceiling of the granite-blasted tunnel, irrigates about 83,000 acres for 3,000 members of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association and also delivers water to more than 50,000 people in the three-county Project 7 Water Authority. The water that pours from the Gunnison Tunnel is the lifeblood of the Uncompahgre Valley, flowing through 128 miles of major canals and 438 miles of lateral ditches in Montrose and Delta counties.
“We are the largest diverter of water in Colorado,” says Steve Anderson, the second-generation general manager of the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association. “We can take about the same as the entire Front Range takes from the Colorado River. And about the same as the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California takes out of the Colorado River. That is a lot of water.”
An engineering marvel
In the late 1800s, it became clear that the fickle flows of the Uncompahgre River alone could not irrigate enough acres in the river valley between Delta and Montrose. There were close to 100,000 acres homesteaded by farmers but only enough water to irrigate a fraction of that.
An ambitious plan to connect the Gunnison River with the Uncompahgre River valley started in the early 1900s, when a pair of intrepid engineers with the local power company and the U.S. Geological Survey descended the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River on rubber air mattresses. With cameras and rudimentary surveying equipment, they searched for a place to build a diversion dam and tunnel.
The first bore of the Gunnison Tunnel opened in 1909. It was the first major project approved by the Department of the Interior under the 1902 Reclamation Act. More than 26 men died during construction of what was then the longest irrigation tunnel ever built. Countless more workers were maimed. The manual diggers — crews of 30 men working around the clock from both ends of the tunnel — were off by only 6 inches when they met in the middle, Veo said. By 1912, water was flowing through the tunnel and irrigating crops from Delta to Montrose.
In 1973, the American Society of Civil Engineers honored the Gunnison Tunnel as a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. A few years later it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places…
The Gunnison Tunnel is the critical link of the Wayne N. Aspinall Unit, one of the four projects that make up the 1956 Colorado River Storage Project…
The other units created under the 1956 Colorado River Storage Project Act include the Flaming Gorge Dam on the Green River in Utah, the Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico and Lake Powell in Utah. The network of reservoirs and dams are used by Upper Colorado River Basin states to store water and generate electricity as part of the Colorado River Compact that divides up the river between seven states and Mexico…
The engineering masterpiece has sustained a lush vibrancy along the Uncompahgre River. It’s pretty simple to imagine what the valley would look like without that tunnel, says John Harold, who farms corn, onion and beans in the valley.
In the mid-2000s, seven states, the federal government and Mexico negotiated critical rules for the Colorado River that established how to divvy up its water in a severe drought like it is now facing.
Thirty Native American tribes — with rights to roughly a quarter of all the water in the river — were shut out of those talks.
Tribes want to make sure that doesn’t happen again. The effort offers new challenges for the seven Colorado River basin states and the Biden administration, which has repeatedly pledged to be more inclusive in regulatory efforts that affect Native Americans.
“It is fair to say that tribes were not involved in the negotiation of the 2007 guidelines,” said Anne Castle, a former Interior assistant secretary for water and science during the Obama administration. “Tribes will have a seat at the table this time in the negotiation of the next set of rules. The question is what does that look like? And that hasn’t been worked out yet.”
The 2007 guidelines expire in 2026 and determine how shortages are allocated across the basin. The Colorado River, which serves 40 million Americans, is currently in the grips of a more than 20-year “megadrought,” and federal officials declared a shortage for the first time in August, which means Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will see cuts to their deliveries next year…
The river’s declining flows due to climate change and drought have put a premium on tribal water.
Negotiations over new operating guidelines are just now getting underway. There is widespread agreement that they will be tougher than the last round because the basin will be grappling with a river that is drying up. Simply put, there is less water to go around.
Tribes have rights to at least 3.2 million acre-feet of river water and, by some estimates, 1 million to 1.5 million acre-feet of it is currently unused. An acre-foot is roughly 326,000 gallons, about as much as a Los Angeles family of four uses in a year.
That’s led to a rush to build out capacity for tribes to meaningfully contribute to the negotiations.
Unused tribal water could provide an important buffer for cities like Phoenix, for example, if agreements are penned to fairly compensate the tribes.
There is also a push for more widespread recognition that tribes may have better ideas for how to use the river.
“You have a group of at least 30 tribal sovereigns in the Colorado River basin who have lived sustainability there for thousands of years,” Daryl Vigil, water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation, said at recent conference hosted by the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at the University of Colorado.
“We are having these conversations about sustainability and resiliency, why aren’t we talking to those people who are still here who have been resilient and have lived sustainably?” Vigil said.
Colorado’s map from the Oct. 26, 2020, U.S. Drought Monitor looked like some kind of fresh hell, its swaths of red and orange highlighting what happens when there is too much heat and not enough water for a long time. Colorado’s resulting fire crisis had good company; much of the Western United States had similar stories of people running from their homes as the fires closed in.
It was so 2020, as further evidenced by the strain on the Colorado River and the ongoing wake-up calls in communities that receive its water – directly or diverted.
Locally, Chaffee County’s economies lean on supplemental summer releases into the Arkansas River. Despite two decades of drought and aridification, the Arkansas has been able to remain visually stunning in the high season – not entirely due to the workings of nature. It’s uncertain how that may change.
One year later, the colors on Colorado’s map have softened to shades of beige and an innocuous-looking lemon-yellow, with darker spots remaining in the northwest corner and the far southwest edge. With some rain to its credit over this past summer and perhaps just plain luck, Colorado managed to escape the land-killing infernos such as the Cameron Peak Fire and the aptly named East Troublesome Fire of 2020.
Nobody knows exactly how those 2020 fires would have raged had not a major snowstorm rolled in on Oct. 25 last year and snuffed their trajectories. As it stood, East Troublesome charred 193,212 acres and 580 structures.
Snow is good. And traditionally it has been the utility player, if not hero, in the seven-state region served by the Colorado River, where, in a perfect world, it stores naturally on Colorado’s mountain peaks. Upon melting with a timed grace and running off in mid-spring, it flows south and west to the Gulf of California, serving some 40 million people en route.
Thanks to warmer temperatures and aridification, that sweet rhythm is off. Spring runoff gushes from the peaks too fast and sinks into the parched landscape before enough of it gets to its intended waterways.
That said, later-season snows helped address an alarming dry trend in the spring of 2021, helping Chaffee County look better on the Drought Monitor and delighting those with fixations on the SNOTEL system and its high-country snowpack reports. The infusion of summer rain gave the appearance of a kinda-maybe monsoon pattern locally.
Water flowing through the Fry-Ark system, the trans-basin diversion from the Colorado River that flows out of the Frying Pan River in Pitkin County and which is released from Turquoise Lake and Twin Lakes, once again plumped the moneymaking waves in the Arkansas River from July 1 until mid-August this year.
Under the Voluntary Flow Management Program with the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District (SECWCD), 10,000 acre-feet of water is allocated during that time; moved to benefit recreation. All told, Fry-Ark sends out an average of 58,000 acre-feet each year, much of it going to agriculture below the Pueblo Reservoir.
It didn’t hurt that the Pueblo Board of Water Works was able to release 6,000 acre-feet from Clear Creek Reservoir early in the summer season. It echoed the cooperative dance of moving large amounts of water that has, by necessity, developed between water entities. This highlights the increased communication that is one of the upsides in the long-reaching, exhaustive conversations about water among an exhaustive list of stakeholders in Colorado and the West.
Chris Woodka, Senior Policy and Issues Management Manager with the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, said the increasing pressures on water have caused groups to come to the table and seek solutions. “What’s different is we’re talking all the time with each other,” he said. “There was a time when people were wary of how other people were moving water. Everyone now realizes it’s to their advantage to talk.”
With water from Fry-Ark and Clear Creek Reservoir – not to mention rain, the fattened Arkansas River gurgled through the county once again and gave more than a passing nod to the local economies over the summer. Pandemic aside, things seemed nice and easy.
“It almost gives you a false sense of security,” [Greg] Felt said, noting that with continuing drought and aridification, there are increasing signs of hydrological systems not being able to correct themselves.
“That whole program is built on Fry-Ark water,” he said. “There’s a lot at stake here. Diversions from the Fry-Ark project could be seriously impacted, and that’s a major concern.”
“It’s a no-brainer, probably, that a voluntary flow management program will be a lower priority than delivery for consumptive use,” he added.
Indeed, nothing is truly nice and easy anymore as the West faces challenges to just about everything that is known about water and how it continues to serve us…
…with average temperatures in the Colorado River Basin running 2 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than in the 20th century, those original nice ideas [Colorado River Compact] are being retooled or sidelined in the name of badly needed, better ideas; addressing drought, aridification and salination, and how to feed people when the river can’t help so much anymore. A new plan for operating the Colorado River is due in 2026.
In January, Rio Blanco secured a water right for a 66,720-acre-foot reservoir between Rangely and Meeker. The conservancy district is proposing an off-channel reservoir with a dam 110 feet tall and 3,800 feet long, with water that will be pumped into the Wolf Creek drainage from the White River.
Rio Blanco said it will use the funds for the National Environmental Policy Act permitting process, which will be administered by the Bureau of Land Management, using a third-party contractor. Rio Blanco estimates the permitting will take three to five years at a cost of $6 to $10 million.
In its application, Rangely-based Rio Blanco said that the River District’s support of the permit phase is essential for the eventual development of the project.
“The project provides a desperately needed new storage reservoir for the White River basin,” the application reads. “The White River basin currently does not have adequate storage to meet the current water needs during drought conditions or any additional future water needs within the basin.”
No River District directors voted against the funding. Rio Blanco County representative Alden Vanden Brink abstained from voting because he is the general manager of the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District.
“I support this concept,” said Gunnison County representative Kathleen Curry. “Investing in a permitting process is wise right now.”
Moffat County representative Tom Gray wondered if funding this request would mean the River District has a moral obligation to approve future funding requests for the Wolf Creek project. But River District General Manager Andy Mueller encouraged board members to look at it as a one-time request because the future of the overall project is still uncertain.
“It is possible that this applicant could have the whole permitting process blow up on them,” Mueller said. “Something beyond our control may occur. … Think of it on an application-at-a-time basis.”
The Wolf Creek project will also need permits from the State Historical Preservation Office, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and a consultation under the Endangered Species Act.
Rio Blanco has budgeted a minimum of $250,000 per year to contribute to the permitting process. Since planning first began in 2013, Rio Blanco and its funding partners, including the Colorado Water Conservation Board, have spent $2.1 million on the project. The project has the support of Rio Blanco and Moffat counties and the Town of Rangely, but so far these governments have not made funding commitments. Rio Blanco estimates the total cost to build the reservoir at $142 million.
Securing the water right for the project took longer than Rio Blanco expected because for five years, Colorado’s top engineers at the Department of Water Resources argued the project was speculative because Rio Blanco could not prove a need for the water. The water right that was eventually granted after years of back-and-forth in water court gave Rio Blanco the amount of water it was seeking, but does not allow the district all the water uses it initially wanted.
The decree granted Rio Blanco a water right for municipal use for the town of Rangely; augmentation within its boundaries; mitigation of environmental impacts; hydroelectric power; and in-reservoir use for recreation, piscatorial and wildlife habitat. The conservancy district will not be able to use the water for irrigation, endangered fish or augmentation in the event of a compact call.
Vanden Brink said there is a sense of urgency to build the Wolf Creek project. He said he is thrilled at the River District’s grant.
“We think it’s a great partnership with the River District,” he said. “It’s critical that this thing gets done.”
The River District’s Community Funding Partnership was established last year when voters passed ballot measure 7A, increasing the River District’s mill levy. Eighty-six percent of the revenue from the tax hike goes toward funding water projects in five categories: productive agriculture; infrastructure; healthy rivers; watershed health and water quality; and conservation and efficiency.
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Craig Press and other Swift Communications newspapers.
The site of the potential off-channel Wolf Creek Reservoir on the White River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The White River, in the vicinity of the proposed Wolf Creek Reservoir. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism.
One option for the White River storage project would be an off-channel dam and reservoir at this location. Water would have to be pumped from the White River into the reservoir site. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism
Taylor Draw Dam holds back the White River to form Kenney Reservoir, located near Rangely. The reservoir is silting in, and a water conservancy district is proposing building a bigger, upstream, off-channel reservoir, a project that is opposed by the state of Colorado. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism
A view of the White River foreground, and the Wolf Creek gulch, across the river. The Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District and the State of Colorado have reached a settlement for a reservoir and dam project at this site. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smith
A view looking downstream of the White River in the approximate location of the potential White River dam and reservoir. The right edge of the dam, looking downstream, would be against the brown hillside to the right of the photo. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smith
One option for the White River storage project would be an off-channel dam and reservoir at this location. Water would have to be pumped from the White River into the reservoir site. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism
A new federal system for projecting Colorado River water flows in the next two years confirms dire news about drought draining the West’s key reservoirs, and increases pressure on Colorado to conserve water immediately to avoid future demands from down-river states, conservation groups say.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation’s new system for projecting vital Colorado River flows in the next two years drops earlier, wetter years out of the historical reference, and gives more weight to two recent decades of drought. The regular October update this week shows water runoff into Lake Powell, the storage basin for four Upper Colorado Basin states, was only 32% of average for the 2021 water year, which runs from October to September.
The new projections for the next two years show that even with federal officials draining portions of Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge and Navajo reservoirs to get more water to Lake Powell’s hydroelectric generating station, a moderate winter would leave the Colorado River in the same crisis a year from now. And a low-water scenario this coming winter season would drop Lake Powell well below the minimum level required to generate electricity by November 2022.
In addition to federal officials trying to protect hydroelectric generation at Lake Powell, and at Lake Mead as the downstream water bank for the Lower Basin states, water compacts govern how much Colorado River water needs to go downstream for use by agriculture and cities…
“We don’t have any more time to talk about it,” Matt Rice, co-chair of the Water for Colorado Coalition and Director of American Rivers’ Colorado River Basin Programs, said after reviewing the latest Bureau of Reclamation update.
Starting with the October update, the bureau begins the historical average calculations in 1991, instead of the 1981 cutoff used until now. The 1980s were much wetter in the Colorado River Basin, Rice said.
“These projections are worse than they have been in the past, but they’re also more realistic,” Rice said. Many conservation groups find that a positive step despite the bad news, Rice added, because it increases pressure on state water officials, local water conservancy districts, agriculture interests, cities and environmentalists to work faster on solutions.
At the same time, Rice said, the updated numbers should drive home the reality that there is 20% less water available now in the Colorado River than as recently as 2000. “There’s no more flexibility in the system, right? We’re looking over the edge of the cliff.”
Water conservation experts in Colorado have worked for years to avoid their worst-case scenario, which is a “call” or a sudden demand from federal managers to deliver more water for hydropower or to satisfy the compacts with the Lower Basin. Without advance planning, a call would force the state water engineer and local conservancy districts to cut irrigators’ water rights based only on the seniority of their water-use rights.
While state and local officials have been working with nonprofits on conservation plans, there are legal tangles that could require new legislation, and seemingly endless ethical questions about which parts of the state would suffer the most water loss, said Sonja Chavez, director of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District…
Blue Mesa Reservoir in her region has been nearly drained by drought and by federal officials taking extra from Western reservoirs to solidify Lake Powell’s power pool. Blue Mesa is projected to soon be down to 27% full, Chavez said. Blue Mesa was 33% full in mid-September, according to Bureau of Reclamation records.
State and private officials have cooperated to experiment with “demand-management” programs, where instead of buying agriculture land and its accompanying water rights outright, they buy the right to rent the water for a few years out of a decade. That rented water can be sent downstream in dry years, and in theory the restoration of water in other years should preserve the farm or ranch land while providing income for the farmer.
But renting or buying of water rights on the scale to meet compact demands would require hundreds of millions of dollars, with no current pot of money to pull from, water experts say. Colorado officials have mentioned the possibility of using money from the infrastructure stimulus plan currently under debate by Congress, but it’s uncertain whether the bill will pass, and how much water-related money will be in it if it does…
The largest amounts of water to be conserved are in agriculture, by far, but Front Range residents must be part of the statewide discussion about finding more water for the downstream Colorado River, Rice and Chavez said.
“You’re not going to get as much out of a city compared to what is the amount of irrigation water diverted for agriculture,” Chavez said. “But there’s also agriculture on the Front Range that benefits from our transmountain diversions,” some of which are created and controlled by urban water departments. “That has to be part of the picture.”
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Becki Bryant and Patti Aaron):
The Bureau of Reclamation has released its October 24-Month Study and 2-year projections of major reservoir levels within the Colorado River system. These projections detail hydrologic conditions and projected operations for Colorado River system reservoirs and are used by Reclamation and water users in the basin for future water management planning.
The October projections are the first to include inflow forecasts developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Colorado Basin River Forecast Center (CBRFC) that incorporate updated climate conditions and data sets known as the “U.S. Climate Normals.” Compared to the previous period used by the CBRFC to develop the inflow forecasts (1981-2010), the more recent 30-year period (1991-2020) eliminates the wetter hydrology experienced in the 1980s and includes most of the 22-year drought that started in 2000 (and continues to the present). NOAA updates the “Climate Normals” to a new 30-year period every 10 years, consistent with weather and forecasting offices in the U.S.
As a result of this update, the median water year 2022 inflow forecast into Lake Powell decreased by 800,000 acre-feet and Reclamation’s October projections show lower Lake Powell elevations compared to the September projections.
Lake Powell Projections
With the decrease in the inflow forecast in water year 2022, Reclamation’s October projections indicate Lake Powell’s elevation at the end of water year 2022 (Sept. 30, 2022) will be about eight feet lower than the September projections. The projections also indicate the increased potential of falling below minimum power pool, elevation 3,490 feet, in 2022. Should extremely dry hydrology continue into next year, Lake Powell could reach elevation 3,490 feet as early as July 2022.
“Incorporating the updated climate normals into the CBRFC forecasts, and, in turn, into our modeling projections, provides us with a better understanding of what is happening now and will give us a more informed assessment of potential future conditions,” said Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Basin Regional Director Wayne Pullan.
Lake Mead Projections
At Lake Mead, the October projections indicate Lake Mead will be at elevation 1,050.63 feet at the end of calendar year 2022, less than one foot above the Tier 2 shortage elevation threshold of 1,050 feet. Recent analysis indicates approximately a 16% chance of a Tier 2 shortage condition in 2023.
“We have had to make difficult choices this year, and we will all have to make more difficult decisions if it continues to remain dry next year to protect Lake Mead and Lake Powell,” said Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Basin Regional Director Jacklynn Gould.
Most of the flow of the Colorado River originates in the Rocky Mountains. The Upper Basin experienced an exceptionally dry spring in 2021, with April to July runoff into Lake Powell totaling just 26% of average, despite snowpack reaching 89% of median, due to dry soil conditions and above-average temperatures.
Reclamation remains committed to reducing the collective risk of both Lake Powell and Lake Mead falling to critical elevations and will continue to work with all partners across the Colorado River Basin to ensure that both facilities continue to function as authorized to meet the natural, municipal and agricultural needs of the basin.
One of the central questions dimly visible in the early discussions around the upcoming renegotiation of the Colorado River’s water operations and allocations rules is the question of how bad a “worst case” scenario should be considered.
This is crucial, because it constrains what sort of questions must then be confronted. The lower the future flows considered, the more likely it is that the negotiators will have to stare down the third rail question of how much water the Upper Basin can delivery hydrologically, and must deliver legally, at Lee Ferry, the dividing point between the Upper and Lower Basins.
For the century since the Colorado River Compact was signed, we’ve avoided dealing with that central question – what happens if the river’s flows are so low that the Upper Basin cannot deliver the 7.5 million acre feet per year (or 8.25 million acre feet, we can’t even agree about which number to argue about) contemplated by the compact’s Article III.
This question is so untouchable that in work done for the 2012 Basin Study, the Bureau of Reclamation’s modelers famously added what came to be called “miracle water” at Lee Ferry every time one of their model runs dropped below the threshold that might have otherwise triggered this legal argument.
Under the low flows possible under climate change, we face a stark choice – either we reduce the Upper Basin’s Lee Ferry deliveries below 7.5/8.25 maf, or we will have to curtail existing Upper Basin uses. Advocates of modeling such low flows in the planning scenarios are essentially saying – Let’s have that conversation now.
At the tale end of yesterday’s (Friday 10/15/2021) House Natural Resources Sucommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife, it was California Rep. Jim Costa, a congressman from outside the Colorado River Basin, who asked the question pointed at the heart of the matter – how do we redo water allocations that make no sense in a river much smaller than contemplated in our hallowed Law of the River?
“The Law of the River and the quantification of the Upper and Lower Basin states amounted to some 17 million acre feet of water that was determined at that time was the annual flow of the Colorado River, and we know that in the last two decades its been more like 12.4 million acre feet, and that doesn’t account for other Native American tribes that have reserved water right claims that have yet to be resolved. So there’s just a tremendous amount of demand. And with climate change, we know the yield is only going to decline.
“This is the question I’d like to submit to all of you, and if you want to provide written statement to your answer I think we would appreciate that.
“Let’s say the annual yield over the next 30 years is 10 million acre feet. I don’t know, with climate change, maybe it’s plus or minus. How do we take into account how we got to the original allocation, with the Upper and Lower Basin States and the Native tribes, the sovereign nations, and then reallocate that on a lot less water.”
At this point all we can see through the public windows into discussions about next-step Colorado River management guidelines is shadow boxing on this question.
But testimony yesterday from Southern Nevada’s John Entsminger suggests the public shadowboxing we’re seeing on this question is representative of disagreements in the private discussions. (I quote here from John’s written testimony.)
“Despite the fervent warnings from internationally renowned scientists like Jonathan Overpeck and Brad Udall that urge us to plan for a future with even less than 12.3 million acre-feet, the river community is far from consensus about how dry of a future to plan for. And, while this panel was asked to talk about drought, on-the-ground evidence suggests the Colorado River basin is not experiencing drought but aridification – a permanent transition to a drier future. If we are to build upon the river’s many successes over the last 25 years, we must confront the magnitude of the challenge in front of us and quickly reach agreement on what future scenario we’re willing to plan for. (emphasis added)”
Speaking two weeks ago at this year’s Getches-Wilkinson Center conference in Boulder, Entsminger put a number to Southern Nevada’s thinking. In the next iteration of its long range water resources plan, Entsminger’s Southern Nevada Water Authority will include a “what if” planning scenario for how the agency would deal with an 11 million acre foot per year Colorado River. This is not to say that Southern Nevada expects an 11 million acre foot river, but rather than it believes it needs to have a plan in place should that happen.
I could be wrong, but so far I’ve seen no public evidence that any of the states of the Upper Basin are willing to entertain flows that low in the planning scenarios to be considered in the modeling done to support the upcoming negotiations. I look forward to seeing the written answers the basin states’ representatives submit to Costa’s question.
Seven states will negotiate access to what’s left in the river. My job is to represent all of Colorado’s interests.
If you live in Colorado—you get it. We don’t quit when challenged. Whether you live in a city, on a farm or ranch, in a rural town, or somewhere in between—you are part of the dynamic group of people who call Colorado home; people who understand when it comes to protecting Colorado water, specifically the Colorado River’s water, we must rise together to meet the challenge.
From its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado River flows broadly across 1,450 miles of the southwestern United States, changing elevation by a remarkable 10,000 feet. More than 40 million people rely on the Colorado, the nation’s fifth-longest river, for drinking water and energy through hydroelectric power. In addition, the river supports an estimated $25 billion recreational economy and an agricultural economy of about $1.4 trillion a year.
About 100 years ago, the seven states in the Colorado River Basin created an agreement known as the 1922 Colorado River Compact and divided the seven states into two groups, the Upper Basin states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming), and the Lower Basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada). It was the beginning of these seven states acting cooperatively to take the lead in managing and allocating the Colorado River’s annual flow of water.
Yet, in the early 1900s, it was impossible to foresee that in the 21st Century, the dwindling supply of water due to climatic forces, coupled with growing demand, would result in the present-day low water levels in our nation’s two largest reservoirs.
Extensive drought that began over 20 years ago in 2000—and continues to this day—has been a major factor leading to Lake Powell, on the Utah-Arizona border, reaching its lowest level since being filled. Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir on the Arizona-Nevada border, also is at its lowest level since filling.
The state of the river is important to every Coloradan – all 6 million of us. It is critical to providing for the needs of current and future generations of Coloradans. More broadly, it is critical to the 40 million people who directly rely on the water of the Colorado River.
That is why all seven states agree that working collaboratively is critical to solving our own river management issues through cooperative agreements like the 2019 Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan.
The Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan provides that, should Lake Powell’s water levels fall too low, Upper Basin states would release more of the river’s water from other reservoirs, to be stored in Lake Powell as part of the Drought Response Operations Agreement in the Upper Colorado River Basin.
The agreement has been activated and the states now are in planning mode.
Another tool could involve an effective demand-management program, which provides compensation for water users, such as farmers and ranchers and municipalities, to voluntarily conserve water on a temporary basis — without the loss of their ongoing water rights — while allowing for more water to be stored in Lake Powell with greater downstream water flow.
So, where do we stand? The seven Colorado River Basin States soon will be negotiating new interim guidelines for Lake Powell and Lake Mead to coordinate operations of both reservoirs.
As Commissioner representing Colorado’s interest in these negotiations, I am charged with effectively representing and protecting the state’s water and the water users’ interests, while also working collaboratively with the other six states and the federal government. As a state, we will continue leading the effort in conjunction with all the Colorado River Basin states.
Throughout the process, I commit to hearing the voices of tribal nations, key stakeholders, non-governmental organizations, and our fellow Coloradans. To learn how to make your voice heard, visit EngageCWCB.org.
As we continue to face the challenges of climate change, persistent drought, and growing populations, we cannot quit.
Rebecca Mitchell, of Denver, is Colorado commissioner for the Upper Colorado River Commission.
States in the Colorado River Basin are adjusting to the reality that their rights outstrip the available water by nearly one-third, state and tribal leaders told a congressional panel Friday.
The situation is likely only to worsen as the climate changes, leaving states and tribes in competition for their most vital resource.
Representatives from the seven Western states — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, California, Utah and Wyoming — that depend on the river for drinking water and irrigation said at a U.S. House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing that they are preparing for a future where the river and their entitlements do not match.
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State officials and lawmakers emphasized how serious the situation was, but offered few solutions during Friday’s hearing — the first of two the panel plans to hold on the drought in the Colorado Basin — beyond general appeals to conservation and collaboration.
States and tribes in the basin are legally entitled to 15 million acre-feet of water per year, with another 1.5 million going to Mexico, but only about 12.4 million has flowed in an average year over the last two decades.
The deficit is the result of a years-long drought that was tied to climate change, U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, a California Democrat who chairs the House Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife, and others said.
“After more than two decades of drought with no end in sight, it’s clear — to most of us at least — that climate change is fundamentally altering the Colorado River,” Huffman said. “It’s decreasing the amount of water available from this key river.”
Ranking Republican Cliff Bentz, of Oregon, said the shortage in the Colorado River Basin could soon be the reality elsewhere.
“This situation the Colorado’s facing is so reflective of what we’re going to be seeing all over the West,” Bentz said, adding that whatever solution was reached could be “a template of some sort.”
Arizona Democrat Raul Grijalva, chairman of the full Natural Resources Committee, called for “a comprehensive initiative” to plan for lower water levels in the basin.
States preach cooperation
Representatives from the states testified about the challenges the shortfall created, and how they were preparing for a more dire future, though they offered few specific solutions.
“Drought and climate change are presenting challenges that are likely to increase over time,” Tom Buschatzke, the director of Arizona’s Department of Water Resources, said.
Buschatzke said the choice was either to cut each state’s water allocation or to conserve use. Arizona was focused on conservation, he said. Partnerships with tribes, neighboring states and other entities would help, he added.
John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said collaborative, regional projects like a water recycling partnership between his agency and one in Southern California, would be needed to deal with the lower water flows.
“We have a simple but difficult decision to make,” he said. “Do we double down on the promises of the last century and fight over water that simply isn’t there, or do we roll up our sleeves and deal with the climate realities of this century?”
Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said water shortages were forcing “heart-breaking” decisions for the state’s farmers, ranchers and tribal communities.
Some residents had decided to sell multi-generational family farms, she said.
“These decisions have significant psychological, sociological and economic impacts to the communities,” she said.
John D’Antonio, the state engineer for New Mexico, said the partnership between states, tribes and the Mexican government had worked for nearly a century and called for that to continue, even as water levels drop.
“Any future decision-making process should consider science, legal and policy aspects concurrently,” he said. “I am confident that all seven Basin states will strive to employ a fact-based approach that considers that holistic vision.”
Bentz said the ideas of collaboration and conservation sounded good, but raised doubt about what those ideas could do on their own.
Saying he could pose the same question to anyone who had testified, he asked Mitchell how much water conservation measures could save in her state.
Colorado’s water conservation plan could conserve 400,000 acre-feet, Mitchell said, though she said that included areas outside the Colorado River Basin.
Amelia Flores, chairwoman of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, told the panel that her government lacked full rights to its share of the water. More than 70 miles of the river runs through the tribes’ lands in Arizona and California.
While the tribes are allowed to divert water for their own purposes, they may not lease it to other communities, a right other tribes enjoy, Flores said. A bill to allow the Colorado River Indian Tribes the same right would help their neighbors, she’s said.
“Without the right to lease our water, we can do little to directly assist communities in Arizona,” she said. “We are simply requesting the right to decide for ourselves how best to use our water.”
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On October 6, 2021, Audubon’s Colorado River Program Director gave the following testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Water and Power. This is slightly edited for length. The full testimony can be found at the bottom of this page.
Chairman Kelly, Ranking Member Hyde-Smith and members of the subcommittee, thank you for holding this important hearing on drought in the West, it is an honor to testify before you today.
My name is Jennifer Pitt, I serve as the Colorado River Program Director for the National Audubon Society (Audubon), and I have more than 20 years of experience working on water issues in the Colorado River basin. Audubon is a leading national nonprofit organization representing more than 1.8 million members. Since 1905, we have been dedicated to the conservation of birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow, throughout the Americas using science, advocacy, education, and on-the- ground conservation. Audubon advocates for solutions in the Colorado River basin that ensure adequate water supply for people and the environment.
As you consider options to support drought management in the West, it is important to recognize the consequences of severe drought in the Colorado River basin. The myriad rivers, wetlands, and lakes of the Colorado River basin have extraordinary value, economically, culturally, ecologically, and spiritually. While these freshwater-dependent resources cover only 2% of the landscape, they support 40% of all breeding birds. Water year 2021 is now the worst year on record for many farmers and ranchers, wildlife managers, and businesses and communities who rely on water supply from the basin, putting these irreplaceable resources at risk.
In the Colorado River basin, like other places across the arid West, climate change and drought are already worsening impacts on freshwater-dependent habitats long starved for water. While we cannot completely stop the impacts that are already occurring, with coordinated efforts and smart investments, we can avoid losing key habitats, and promote a stronger, more resilient basin for the future. In order to avoid the worst outcomes for birds and other species, Audubon has worked to ensure that water infrastructure does no additional environmental damage, worked with water managers to dedicate flows for the environment, and supports investing in habitat restoration.
Federal Investment Needed to Help Manage Drought Impacts
Federal leadership is needed to provide the resources necessary to address this challenge. Congress should use all available options to invest in immediate and long-term solutions to mitigate current disasters and enhance the climate resilience of states affected by historic drought conditions. Audubon supports immediate disaster relief for communities hit hardest by compounding issues of drought, fire, COVID-19, and historic inequalities. Funding for a suite of common-sense strategies including natural infrastructure that creates distributed storage, forest management and wildfire mitigation, ecosystem restoration, upgraded agricultural irrigation infrastructure, binational water conservation and habitat restoration, water recycling and improved science will provide the means to help enhance overall climate resilience for people, wildlife, and economies throughout the Colorado River basin. Audubon’s federal funding priorities include:
Emergency Drought Response: Emergency drought relief funding is needed to respond to the historic drought conditions affecting tens of millions of Americans. There is no funding provided for immediate emergency response in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, so additional investment is needed.
USGS Monitoring and Research: Federal investment in monitoring and science, including Open ET, will allow water managers to replace and add new stream gages, comprehensively forecast, model and track water availability throughout the basin.
Reclamation’s binational program: Minute 323 carries forward the cooperative approach originally forged in Minute 319, and includes binational agreement to invest in agricultural infrastructure improvements in the Mexicali Valley that result in water conserved in Lake Mead and improvements to riparian habitats. Binational investments have proven effective since the United States and Mexico initiated the cooperative process 15 years ago, but much more needs to be done. With conservation opportunities and ecosystem restoration projects demonstrating the wisdom of the initial pilot projects, it is time to increase the scale of our binational investments. All Colorado River water users would benefit from additional investment in binational water conservation and habitat restoration. By doing so, we would continue to see the benefits in the water levels of Lake Mead and help slow the decline of these essential reservoirs. Without this cooperative process, governments and water leaders on both sides of the border would be investing precious time and energy to try to create the system we have in place today. With Minute 323, our existing binational framework for cooperation, water conservation and environmental restoration, it is time to increase investments to meet the challenges of drought and climate change that threaten the Basin.
Salton Sea Restoration: Funding will help mitigate the environmental and public health crisis caused by the receding shoreline of California’s Salton Sea.
Indian Health Service Sanitation and Construction Support: Tribal members suffered the highest rates of covid-19 infection and mortality of any ethnic group in the United States, and the fact that thousands of homes on tribal reservations do not have water service is unconscionable.
Reclamation Water Settlement Fund: Tribal water settlements are urgently needed to address long- overdue promises, to allow tribes to benefit from their water rights, and to reduce the uncertainty that unsettled rights imposes on all Colorado River water users.
WaterSMART grants, including the Cooperative Watershed Management Program, with a set-aside for natural infrastructure projects: Community resilience to climate change can be improved with funding for nature-based solutions for restoring rivers and wetlands. Natural infrastructure, including irrigated wetlands and restored high-elevation meadows, can build adaptive capacity in ecosystems and ranching operations to cope with ongoing climate shifts. These investments could also mitigate climate change by reducing and sequestering greenhouse gas emissions and increase economic resilience by providing cost-effective mechanisms to restore degraded working lands, improving land value and profitability of operations.
Reclamation’s Water Recycling and Reuse programs: Technologies are available to help municipal water systems stretch available water supplies through investments in recycling and reuse infrastructure. Federal funding to maximize water recycling and reuse can help maintain the trend already established among municipalities that use Colorado River water whereby population growth is decoupled from water demand.
Reclamation Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration Program: Beyond the funding in the Infrastructure Bill, additional funding is needed to restore imperiled ecosystems, especially ecosystems facing significant negative impacts caused by historic drought conditions.
Reclamation multi-benefit projects to improve watershed health: Beyond what was included in the Infrastructure Bill, robust funding is needed to improve watershed health and resiliency, especially for watersheds facing significant negative impacts from historic drought conditions.
Ecosystem restoration funding for the U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior: Well- managed forests provide numerous benefits, including preventing soil erosion; supporting water filtration and increasing runoff yields; regulating snow melt and water supply; improving water quality; lowering water treatment costs; capturing carbon; and benefiting wildlife habitat and fisheries. Implementing best practices in forest management and forest restoration can help maintain these benefits and mitigate against watershed degradation, severe wildfire, and other climate change impacts. Forest management and restoration can also help in adapting to climate shifts as conditions in the basin change, such as regulating snowmelt runoff and increasing economic resilience through job creation and reduced emergency costs, among other benefits.
Reclamation funding for Aging Agricultural Infrastructure: Ensuring that agricultural infrastructure and operations are up to the challenges of higher temperatures and reduced flows will sustain the economic resilience of rural communities. Improving agricultural infrastructure and operations can reduce pressure on existing water supplies by making operations more efficient, reducing the potential for over-diversion from streams and rivers, and potentially reducing consumptive use.
Improvements can also help the basin’s agriculture become more resilient to the effects of climate change such as reduced stream flows and higher temperatures.
Collaborative solutions are possible in the Colorado River basin
Freshwater-dependent habitats can be restored with effort and investment, and in some cases, restoration may be the key to reaching consensus in binational Colorado River shortage-sharing agreements.
Water conservation can be implemented with sensitivity to the species that depend on irrigated habitats.
Sensible water policies and state-level investments can help improve western watersheds and water supplies, and leverage federal funding.
We are all in this together, and cooperation and collaboration are critical.
Why Action is needed now: drought has launched the Colorado River into crisis, and climate change means this is not a temporary condition
Climate change has come barging through the front doors of the Colorado River basin. The Colorado River has lost 20% of its historic flows in the past 20 years. Fifteen years ago, water managers pointed to drought, which has recurred periodically over the past century. Today it is clear – and Colorado River water managers understand – that the shrinking water supply is largely due to climate change, with increased temperatures accounting for 33% of the 21st century decline. In 2021, the Colorado River basin snowmelt measured 90% of average, but runoff – the snowmelt that filled the rivers – was only 30% of average. That discrepancy demonstrates an impact of climate change between the ridgetops and the valley bottoms: warm temperatures that drive evaporation, soil desiccation, and increased water use by every living thing.
What we do know is stark: Climate change and aridification are permanently changing our landscapes, threatening our way of life, jeopardizing our ability to produce hydropower and placing further strain on our communities. The possibility of severe declines at Lakes Mead and Powell should be a wake-up call to anyone who wants their children or grandchildren to be able to survive and thrive in the West.
Drought is devastating Colorado River habitats and the wildlife that depends on them
Because freshwater-dependent resources in the Colorado River basin support 40% of all breeding birds, these birds, like the proverbial canary in the coalmine, are telling us that the basin is in trouble. Birds like the Yellow Warbler and Summer Tanager, once familiar sights along the Colorado River, have experienced significant regional declines. The outlook for Yuma Ridgway’s Rail, Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, all listed as federally endangered, is especially bleak if current trends continue.
Today, rivers in the basin suffer from reduced flow and changed seasonality of flows, resulting in a diminished river, and in loss of much of the native forest that flourished on the river’s banks. The loss of aquatic and riparian habitats has had devastating impacts on wildlife, particularly fish and birds.
The combination of drought and heatwaves – as witnessed this summer – can push birds to their physiological limits, leading to lethal dehydration. In drought times, birds may also congregate at remaining, dwindling water spots, causing conditions ripe for the spread of disease.
At the Salton Sea, declining inflows in the wake of the 2003 Imperial Valley to San Diego transfer is resulting in exposed playa, which creates significant air quality problems for communities that already suffer high asthma rates. The shrinking lake impacts wildlife too: colonial seabirds began abandoning nesting sites en masse in 2013, and shallow, marshy habitat areas at the sea’s edge have begun to rapidly vanish. As less water flows into the Sea, it is becoming more saline and inhospitable to birds, fish, and insects. In the Colorado River Delta, the near complete elimination of flows resulted in an 80% reduction of what had been an expansive, 1.5 million acre ecosystem of wetlands and riparian forests.
In the past couple of years, we have gotten a glimpse of how climate change impacts will compound with shattering consequences for the environment. With the increase in hot, windy, and dry days, fire season has more than doubled since 1973 in many parts of the West. Forests devastated by 20 years of beetle kill, drought stress, and low soil moisture have burned at record rates. In 2020, Colorado’s Grizzly Creek Fire burned more than 32,000 acres on the Colorado River above Glenwood Springs, and in 2021 rainstorms over the burn area triggered mudslides, repeatedly closing Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon, interrupting travel and trade, and choking the Colorado River, clogging fish breeding grounds and dumping untold volumes of ash and sediment into the water supply.
2021 river temperatures up to 80º F impacted numerous recreational fisheries leading to voluntary and mandatory closures. Warm rivers also boost populations of non-native bass and pike, which prey on protected Colorado River native fishes including the razorback sucker and humpback chub. 2021 also saw rivers like the Dolores go completely dry, which is not friendly habitat for any kind of fish.
This is a sobering and scary time for everyone and everything that depends on the Colorado River.
As Congress considers priorities and funding opportunities, Audubon supports increasing federal investments and leadership for the Colorado River Basin and natural resources across the West. After this year’s historic drought and catastrophic wildfires, we urge Congress to ensure that federal agencies receive critically needed resources to prepare now for the effects of climate change by promoting nature-based solutions for restoring watersheds and ecosystems. In addition, Congress has several pending bills with bipartisan support that respond to the many needs of tribal communities and western states’ water supply needs that we are supporting, including access to clean water and water settlements. It is imperative that our communities have the resources they need to prepare for and respond to the drought crisis that touches every living thing.
Thank you very much for the opportunity to testify and I would be happy to answers your questions.
The West’s dire drought issues took a national stage on Friday, as a roster of prominent Western water experts from the region testified in front of the U.S. Congress.
Water decision-makers representing seven states and two tribes within the Colorado River basin spoke about drought in a virtual hearing held by the Committee on Natural Resources’ subcommittee on water, oceans and wildlife.
This week’s hearing, and a similar set of testimonies in front of the U.S. Senate last week, comes at a time of crisis for water in the West. More than two decades of drought are straining the region’s supplies, and forecasts predict a hotter, drier future due to climate change. Declining levels in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, have forced mandatory cutbacks for some users and projections indicate that more will be necessary in the next few years…
As leaders are faced with the challenge of allocating the steadily shrinking resource, many called for collaboration and additional funding for new and improved infrastructure. Some flatly said the only viable path forward includes major reductions in usage…
Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, touched on the sprawling effects of a drought currently touching 90% of the state, including shortages threatening the livelihoods of farmers, and increasingly frequent and devastating wildfires. She also highlighted the heavy impacts the drought had on the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, where an agriculture-dependent economy has been challenged by shortages.
Tribal leaders advocated for greater acknowledgement and respect for tribal sovereignty. Darryl Vigil, water administrator of the Jicarilla Apache Nation, urged the federal government to formalize a process for tribal participation in water negotiations.
“We have experience and knowledge developed over many hundreds of years of sustainable and adaptive living,” Vigil said. “We understand the importance of honoring the very things that keep us alive, that feed us and quench our thirst.”
He explained that tribes have senior water rights to at least 25% of the current natural flow of the Colorado River, and said they have historically been “excluded from decision-making or consulted” only after decisions have been made.
“It is my sincere hope that the attention and action of this committee represents the beginning of a new chapter in the management of the Colorado River,” Vigil said. “A chapter in which tribes are treated with the same dignity, respect and responsibility as the other sovereigns in the basin.”
Amelia Flores, chairwoman of the Colorado Indian River Tribes, emphasized the need for new water infrastructure that would allow tribes to use it more efficiently. That group is Arizona’s largest single user of water from the Colorado river – but is unable to use its full allocation. Flores highlighted proposed legislation that would allow the tribes to lease water to other users.
A Colorado water seminar always had climatechange on the agenda, but the tone was different this year, more alarmed, more worried, if still optimistic
What a flip-flop from 2001. We were going to war in Afghanistan, worrying about terrorists in our midst, and anthrax arriving in the mail.
The reservoirs of the Colorado River were close to full.
At the time I had given little thought to climate change, other than to be somewhat skeptical about the alarm. That changed in 2003, when I was given an assignment by the editor of Ski Area Management to round up what was being said. I read a year’s worth of articles in the New York Times and then—my eyes widened considerably—set out to find much more. It has been front and center for me ever since.
Brad Udall also immersed himself in climate change beginning in 2003. He had been trying to preserve open space in Eagle County for a few years but then returned to the Front Range. There, he directed the Western Water Assessment in Boulder and, more recently, joined the staff of the Colorado State University Water Institute as a scholar and scientist. He has expertise in hydrology but also in crunching numbers.
Over the years, Udall has distinguished himself as an expert on the effects of the warming climate on the Colorado River. His most prominent insight was a paper published in 2017 by the prestigious journal Science. Udall and Jonathan Overpeck, who also was originally schooled in Boulder and I believe still has a cabin in the San Juan Mountains near Telluride, sifted through the data before concluding that at least a third of the reduced flows in the Colorado River should be attributed to heat, not reduced precipitation.
On Oct. 1, speaking to the Colorado River District’s annual seminar in Grand Junction remotely from Boulder, Udall described the strengthened evidence that half of the reduced flows could be explained by rising temperatures. He calls it aridification.
Much worse, he said, is yet to come.
Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based River District, had introduced the session, using words of greater alarm than I had heard at the annual seminar—and I’ve attended most, in person or virtually, since the first session in 2003. He used the metaphor of a train wreck.
“For a decade or more, we have seen the train wreck slowly moving this way,” he reiterated afterwards when I spoke to him for a story published by Fresh Water News. “It has picked up speed pretty significantly in the last couple of years. The question is how do we avert the train wreck (from coming into our station).”
Mueller had described reduced flows and warm temperatures in the Yampa River as it flows through Steamboat Springs that have caused the river to be closed to recreation something like 8 of the last 14 years. There were fish kills in the Colorado River this year. He told of shortening ski seasons and warned lower-elevation ski areas may not make it in the future.
He had also told the audience in Grand Junction that adaptations to lower flows would be necessary. Farmer and ranchers might have to cut irrigation to marginal areas, forego low-income crops. He vowed that Front Range cities would have to conserve and not expect the Western Slope to bear the burden.
Climate change has never been a verboten word at River District seminars, even if this is from an area that elected Lauren Boebert to Congress. Udall, for example, has spoken at least three times in my memory and probably more.
This year’s outlook was different, less cautious, more worried. The tone was reflected in the seminar title: “Wake-Up Call on the Colorado River.”
National publications this summer brimmed with stories about the distress of the Colorado River, especially after the Bureau of Reclamation on Aug. 16 issued a shortage declaration. Arizona is most immediately affected, but this is huge for the five other basin states, including Colorado.
Mueller agreed with me when we talked by phone that none of what happened this year was surprising. Most people involved with the river saw it coming.
I remember talking with Udall in 2019 (for a story in Headwaters, the magazine), when something called the Drought Contingency Plan was completed. That agreement tightened the belt of Arizona but kicked the fundamental decisions down the road to a plan projected to be implemented in 2026. Udall was skeptical that the emergency would be that slow to arrive.
Now there’s an awareness in the public of the brittleness of the hydraulic empire created in the 20th century in Southwest states, including Colorado. A decade, ago, there was hope that some big snow years like we had in the ‘80s and ‘90s would fill the reservoirs. We’ve had some big snow years, but the runoff doesn’t show it.
Now, one major question is whether they will go so low as to make it impossible to generate electricity.
I asked Mueller about his remarks, the tone of this year’s session. “The tone has to reflect the reality on the ground,” he said.
“I think at every level our folks who are paying attention to the science and the hydrology, there is an increasing sense of urgency in the Colorado River Basin, and it’s shared by folks on the ground today, from ranchers in the Yampa River Valley to farmers in the Uncompahgre Valley to major urban providers like Denver Water. We all recognize there is something very different going on than there was 10 years ago in the Colorado River,” he said.
“People like Brad have been saying for years that this is coming. I have seen lots of people in power turn their backs to Brad when he’s talking,” he said, likely meaning that metaphorically. “They’re not doing that so much anymore.”
What is happening is complex but understandable. There is drought, as conventionally understood, but then the overlay of higher temperatures. The warmer temperatures cause more evaporation. They cause more transpiration from plants. More precipitation can overcome this, but particularly in Southern Colorado, there’s actually been less.
The most interesting slide Udall showed compared the runoff of several rivers over time. The San Juan River—which originates in Colorado, near Pagosa Springs—had 30% less water in 2000-2019 at Bluff, Utah, as compared to 1906-1999. The decline of the Colorado River at Glenwood Springs was 6%.
Another compelling statistic reported during the seminar was about soil moisture. Dry soil sops up snowmelt before it can get to the stream. Runoff from deep snows can be lost to the previous years’ dry soils.
In 2020, the snowpack was 100% but the runoff was 50%. That soil-moisture deficit played into this year’s even worse runoff, 30% of average from a snowpack that was 90% of average.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation during the Trump years operated well, although I do remember a session at the Colorado River Water Users Association in December 2019 of top Trump water officials who sat on a panel and patted themselves on the back for the better part of an hour, seemingly oblivious to the big issue of that day. It was like the famous Trump cabinet meeting where the cabinet heads took turns praising Trump like he was the North Korean dictator.
Udall, in his presentation to the River District seminar, pointed to the tremendous drop in storage. The two giant reservoirs, Mead and Powell, in January 2020 were 90% full and held 47 million acre-feet. They are projected to fall to 15 million acre-feet combined by April 22, leaving them 30% full.
This has manifold implications—including for Colorado. In 2009, I wrote my first story about Colorado’s possible need to curtail diversions in order to comply with the Colorado River Compact. That possibility is far more concrete now, and Udall mentioned it in his presentation.
But even when it was more remote, water managers in Colorado were talking about various programs that could allow cities to pay farmers and ranchers, especially on the Western Slope, to use their water (for a price, of course). The farmers and ranchers tend to have the oldest and most senior water rights; the cities tend to have the more junior rights – almost exclusively junior to the Colorado River Compact.
Looking around me on the Front Range, I don’t see a response that I think the situation justifies. From Pueblo to Fort Collins, we all depend greatly upon imported water. That will almost certainly change. We’re going to see a very different water paradigm a decade from now. Predicting the changes is beyond me, but the water in the 21st century isn’t there to satisfy 20th century expectations.
There may be implications in other realms. I am reminded what Colorado State Sen. Chris Hansen said at a fundraiser this summer, about the growing room for new alliances with conservatives to move forward on climate action. The evidence—wildfires, heat waves, the drying of the Colorado River – is becoming overwhelming.
Visiting Greeley to attend the Energy and Environmental Leadership Symposium on Oct 8-9, I was struck by the shift. This is in Weld County, where 90% of oil and gas production occurs in Colorado. The keynote speaker, Chris Wright, the chief executive of Liberty Oilfield Services, downplayed the risks and costs of climate change and emphasized the cost of trying to shift from fossil fuels. This will be a 200-year journey, he said, not something done in 30 years.
But for the next day and a half, whether talking about fossil fuels or renewables, all the sessions in some way had to do with a carbon-constrained world.
To modify Mueller’s cliché about the train, it seems like the train has left the station on this energy transition and it’s picking up speed. This train will have to move a lot quicker. Just what value will those giant reservoirs built during the 20th century on the Colorado River have in the 21st century? It’s an open question.
The 96-degree heat has barely broken early on a September evening near Fruita, Colo. As the sun prepares to set, the ailing Colorado River moves thick and quiet next to Interstate 70, crawling across the Utah state line as it prepares to deliver billions of gallons of water to Lake Powell, 320 miles south.
This summer the river has been badly depleted—again—by a drought year whose spring runoff was so meager it left water managers here in Western Colorado stunned. As a result Lake Powell is just one-third full and its hydropower plants could cease operating as soon as July of 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
“We’re looking at a very serious situation from Denver all the way to California and the Sea of Cortez,” said Ken Neubecker, an environmental consultant who has been working on the river’s issues for some 30 years. “I’ve never seen it in a worse state.”
The Colorado River Basin is made up of seven states. Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico comprise the upper basin and are responsible for keeping Lake Powell full.
Arizona, California and Nevada comprise the lower basin and rely on Powell’s larger, downstream sister reservoir, Lake Mead, just outside Las Vegas, to store water for delivery to Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles and more than 1 million acres of farmland.
These are two of the largest reservoirs in the United States. Few believed Mead, built in the 1930s, and Powell, built in the 1960s when the American West had just begun a 50-year growth spurt, would face a future where they were in seeming freefall. The two reservoirs were last full in 2000. Two years ago they dropped to 50% of capacity. Now they are operating at just over one-third their original 51 million-acre-foot combined capacity.
First-ever drought accord
Two years ago, this unprecedented megadrought prompted all seven states to agree, for the first time, to a dual drought contingency plan—one for the upper basin and one for the lower. In the lower basin, a specific set of water cutbacks, all tied to reservoir levels in Mead, were put in place. As levels falls, water cutbacks rise.
Those cutbacks began this year in Arizona.
But in the upper basin, though the states agreed to their own drought contingency plan, they still haven’t agreed on the biggest, most controversial of the plan’s elements: setting aside up to 500,000 acre-feet of water in a special, protected drought pool in Lake Powell. Under the terms of the agreement, the water would not have to be released to lower basin states under existing rules for balancing the contents of Powell and Mead, but would remain in Powell, helping to keep hydropower operations going and protecting the upper basin from losing access to river water if they fail to meet their obligations to Arizona, Nevada and California.
The pool was considered a political breakthrough when it was approved, something to which the lower basin states had never previously agreed.
“It was a complete reversal by the lower basin,” said Melinda Kassen, a retired water attorney who formerly monitored Colorado River issues for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
But the idea was controversial among some powerful upper basin agricultural interests. Ranchers, who use some 80% of the river’s water, feared they would lose too much control of their own water supplies.
As proposed, the drought pool would be filled voluntarily, largely by farmers and ranchers, who would be paid to temporarily dry up their hay meadows and corn fields, allowing the saved water to flow down to Powell.
Two years ago, when the drought contingency plan was approved, the four upper basin states thought they would have several years to create the new pool if they chose to.
But Powell’s plunging water levels have dramatically shortened timelines. With a price tag likely in the hundreds of millions of dollars, confusion over whether saved farm water can be safely conveyed to Powell without being picked up by other users, and concerns over whether there is enough time to get it done, major water players are questioning whether the pool is a good idea.
“It was probably a good idea at the time and it’s still worth studying,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, the largest water utility in Colorado. “But it can’t be implemented in the short term. We don’t have the tools, we don’t have the money to pay for it, and we don’t have the water.”
Neubecker has similar concerns. “I fear it’s going to be Band-Aid on an endlessly bleeding problem…we need to do more.”
Since 2019 the State of Colorado has spent $800,000 holding public meetings and analyzing the legal, economic and water supply issues that would come with such a major change in Colorado River management.
Still no decisions have been made.
A call to act
Becky Mitchell is director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which is overseeing the analysis.
Aware of frustration with the state’s progress on studying the drought pool’s feasibility, formally known as its demand management investigation, Mitchell said the work done to date will help the state better manage the river in a drier future with or without the drought pool.
“We’re still ahead of the game in terms of what we’ve done with the study. The other states are looking at feasibility investigations but ours has been incredibly robust,” Mitchell said. “If we’re going to do it we have to do it right and factor all these things in. Otherwise we’re going to be moving backward.”
One example of a step forward is that new tools to measure water saved from fallowing agricultural land are now being developed.
A large-scale experiment in a swath of high-altitude hayfields near Kremmling has demonstrated that ranchers can successfully dry their fields and deliver Colorado River water to the stream in a measurable way, and the data is considered strong enough that it could be used to quantify water contributions to the drought pool.
But other regulatory and physical barriers remain.
Under Colorado’s water regulations, rivers are only regulated where they cross state boundaries when water is scarce and the state would otherwise be unable to meet the terms of agreements with downstream states. But this is not yet the case on the Colorado River and its tributaries, so rules for determining who would get what in the event of cutbacks haven’t been developed.
In addition, because there has never been a so-called “call” on the Colorado River, the state has yet to require that all those who have diversion structures pulling from the Colorado River system measure their water use.
The situation is changing fast, though, with the 20-year drought and the storage crisis at Powell and Mead increasing pressure on state regulators to take action.
Now the state is taking steps to better monitor the river and its tributaries, moving to require that all diversion structures have measuring devices so it has the data it needs to enforce its legal obligations to the lower basin. If, for instance, some water users had to be cut off to meet the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the state could manage those cutbacks based on the water right decrees users hold that specify amount and priority date of use.
Such data would also be needed to administer a mass-fallowing program to help fill the Lake Powell drought pool.
Kevin Rein, Colorado’s State Engineer and top water regulator, said what’s known as the mainstem of the Colorado River is fairly well monitored but major tributaries, such as the Yampa and Gunnison, are not.
“A lot of tributaries don’t have the devices,” Rein said, adding that the state doesn’t know the extent of the problem. “But in important areas a lot of commissioners know there is a significant lack of measurement devices and that makes water administration difficult.”
Joe Bernal is a West Slope rancher whose family has been farming near Fruita since 1920. He has water rights that date back to 1898 and, like others in this rich agricultural region, he and his family have abundant water.
Bernal was an early supporter of the drought pool. He and his family participated in an experimental fallowing program in 2016, where they were paid to dry up their fields. He’s confident the problems can be solved.
But he’s also worried that the 500,000 acre-foot pool may not hold enough water to stabilize the river system and that it may not be done fast enough.
“We want to be sure the solution does some good, but the clock is ticking,” he said. “We don’t want to change the culture of this valley or our ability to produce food. But I think things need to move faster. We are taking too long implementing these solutions.”
Checking the averages
As Powell and Mead continue to drop—they were roughly half full just two years ago— Mitchell and Rein are quick to point out that Colorado remains in compliance with the 1922 Compact, which requires the upper basin to ensure 7.5 million acre-feet of water reaches the lower basin at Lee Ferry, Ariz., based on a 10-year rolling average. Right now the average is at roughly 9.2 million acre-feet, although it too is declining as the upper basin’s supplies continue to erode due to drought and climate change.
Climate scientist and researcher Brad Udall has estimated that the upper basin may not be able to deliver the base 7.5 million acre-feet in a year as soon as 2025. But the upper basin would remain in compliance with the 1922 Compact even then because the rolling average remains healthy.
Still, if the reservoirs continue to plummet as quickly as they have in the past two years, when they dropped from 50% to 30% full, the upper basin could face a compact crisis faster than anyone ever anticipated.
Major water users in the state, such as Denver Water, Northern Water and Pueblo Water, have water rights that post-date, or are junior to, the 1922 water compact, meaning their water supplies are at risk of being slashed to help meet lower basin demands.
The big dry out
Many river advocates hope the drought pool is approved because they believe it is an opportunity to test how the river and its reservoirs will work as the region continues to dry out.
“What we knew in 2018 [when the drought pool was conceived] is that we have more to do,” said Kassen. The drought pool, she said, “was a big win and offers a way of testing what the upper basin can do. It’s squandered if they don’t use it.”
Neubecker and others say it’s becoming increasingly clear that the river’s management needs to be re-aligned with the reality of this new era of climate change and multi-year drought cycles.
And that means that water users in the lower basin and upper basin will need to learn to live with how much water the river can produce, rather than how much a century-old water decree says they’re legally entitled too.
“We’re facing a 21st Century situation that was totally unforeseen by anyone,” Neubecker said, “and we no longer have the luxury of time.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
The Colorado River Basin encompasses seven U.S. states and supplies water to 40 million people. Over the past two decades, the basin has experienced record-setting heat and some of the driest years ever recorded, which have combined to sap the river of water at unprecedented rates. The largest reservoirs on the river have dropped to alarmingly low levels in recent months, forcing Western water managers to rethink how they operate in the face of scarcity.
Last month, federal officials sounded the alarm by declaring the first-ever water shortage in the basin. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation cited “historic drought,” climate change, and low levels of runoff from the Rocky Mountains as reasons for the continued decline of Lake Mead…
With every foot that Lake Mead falls, the basin comes closer to triggering substantial cutbacks for certain water users along the river. The first round of reductions, which will take effect next year, will primarily impact farmers in central Arizona. But if lake levels continue to decline, future cutbacks could impact the 30 Native American tribes with lands in the basin…
Indigenous nations have recognized rights to more than one-fifth of the basin’s annual supply — more than a trillion gallons, or nearly enough to cover an area the size of Connecticut in a foot of water. That allocation is likely to increase in the future, because 12 of the tribes in the Colorado River Basin are still engaged in the decades-long process of resolving their water rights claims, according to the Water & Tribes Initiative, a coalition of tribal representatives, water rights attorneys and academics.
Tribal water rights differ from state-based rights in several ways. Unlike a state or irrigation district, a tribe’s right to water dates back at least as early as the creation of its reservation. Despite having federally reserved water rights, tribal claims were largely ignored until the 1960s, when the U.S. Supreme Court adopted standards allowing tribes to have their rights quantified, a form of legal recognition that identifies the amount of water to which users hold rights.
But even for tribes that have resolved their rights, some face significant barriers to fully using their water, including a lack of necessary infrastructure, funding challenges, and limited legal options to put their water to use outside their reservations through leases or other arrangements.
If a tribe does not (or cannot) use all the water it is entitled to, it doesn’t go unused; thirsty cities and agricultural fields downstream from reservations siphon off the surplus, but with no compensation for the tribe…
Tribes with substantial diversion rights may remain unscathed by the initial reductions, with some even in the position to contribute water back into the system. But other tribes are less fortunate; in addition to unrecognized water rights, deteriorating infrastructure, and water insecurity issues, some tribes could face cutbacks to their water supply as early as 2023.
Whether a tribe is flush with mainstream flows or struggling to access clean drinking water, every tribe in the basin must navigate the complicated legal landscape that governs water rights on the Colorado.
Much of the water that flows through the Colorado River starts as snowpack in the southern Rockies. The snowmelt produced in spring then flows into tributaries in states like Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. These states are part of the Upper Colorado River Basin: The lands fed by waters of the Colorado River system were divided into an upper basin and a lower basin during the negotiations for the 1922 Colorado River Compact. The so-called “law of the river” is an amalgamation of interstate compacts, statutes, regulations, court decisions, an international treaty, and the seminal 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decree in Arizona v. California, which enabled several tribes to quantify their rights.
In Utah, one of those tributaries — the Green River — flows through the lands of the Ute Indian Tribe, which had a portion of its water rights quantified in the 1920s but is still litigating unresolved claims. Because the Ute tribe has not fully resolved nor developed those rights, much of the tribe’s water goes unused and flows toward Lake Powell, the second-largest reservoir on the Colorado River.
Despite the declining water levels at the lake, the state of Utah is forging ahead with a proposed $2 billion pipeline that would pump water from Lake Powell to largely non-Native communities near St. George — 140 miles away, in southwestern Utah. Critics blasted the proposal, citing the state’s failure to recognize the tribe’s water entitlements, its refusal to conduct meaningful tribal consultation and, more generally, its antiquated approach to water development in the Western U.S.
The Ute Indian Tribe has a pending lawsuit challenging the project, arguing that the pipeline would obstruct the tribe’s efforts to fully develop its water rights. (The Ute Indian Tribe declined a request to be interviewed for this article, citing the ongoing litigation.)
Battling for water rights is more than just a struggle for adequate water resources; it’s a fight for better health.
Tribes with unresolved water rights must undertake a convoluted settlement process to have their share of the river quantified. And while every tribe is legally entitled to enough water to satisfy their on-reservation needs, having unquantified rights poses additional challenges for those tribes, according to Bidtah Becker, an associate attorney with the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority.
The Navajo Nation has extensive water rights in both the upper and lower basins, but the tribe’s claims in the state of Arizona remain unquantified. Proposed settlements negotiated by the tribe a decade ago never materialized. In the coming years, court proceedings are scheduled to resolve the water rights of the Navajo, as well as the neighboring Hopi Tribe.
Becker said tribes without recognized water rights often face challenges in securing funding for water infrastructure projects, especially in areas where substantial water pipelines and other facilities would be required. The lack of adequate water infrastructure has long plagued the Navajo Nation, where residents are 67 times more likely than other Americans to live without access to running water…
As tribes with unresolved rights fight to settle their claims, the basin-wide shortage is forcing all stakeholders on the river to find ways to conserve water. That scarcity is likely to make striking a deal even more challenging than it has been in the past…
[Pam] Adams is one of the chief liaisons between the tribes and Reclamation, an agency under the Department of the Interior. Acknowledging the persistent challenges faced by tribes seeking settlements in the past, Adams said resolving all outstanding tribal claims is a priority among the department’s leaders, including Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who is a member of the Laguna Pueblo. Clarifying the rights of each tribe also gives greater certainty to other stakeholders in the basin, Adams said, adding, “It’s best for everyone to get them settled and this administration is certainly very supportive of that.”
The Bureau of Reclamation is currently building a 300-mile-long pipeline that will supply water from the San Juan River to portions of the Navajo Nation and Jicarilla Apache Nation. Becker said projects like the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project are significant steps, but that more needs to be done to address the lack of water security in Native American communities…
Members of the Gila River Indian Community, or GRIC, irrigate thousands of acres south of Phoenix. With a population of more than 13,000 living on the reservation, the tribe traces its roots to ancient cultures that built expansive networks of irrigation canals to support large villages along the waterway. These days, the farmlands are fed by a new stream. The Central Arizona Project, or CAP, completed in the 1990s, is a 330-mile-long canal that conveys Colorado River water from Lake Havasu, on the California border, to central and southern Arizona…
Because the CAP has some of the lowest-priority rights on the river, the canal is subject to the first round of reductions next year. The basin-wide Drought Contingency Plan established a three-tiered system for imposing reductions in the lower basin based on the level of Lake Mead. Under a Tier 1 shortage (which is triggered when the elevation of Lake Mead falls below 1,075 feet), CAP water supplies will be cut by 30 percent — reductions that will primarily impact farmers in places like Pinal County.
The five tribes that draw from the CAP have some of the highest-priority rights on the canal, which largely buffers them from the initial round of cutbacks. If Lake Mead were to fall below 1,025 feet in elevation, the lower basin would enter a Tier 3 shortage, at which point Arizona’s diversion rights would be reduced by roughly 45 percent compared to the canal’s current supply…
Even if continued declines were to trigger a Tier 3 shortage — the direst scenario envisioned in the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan — water deliveries to the Gila River Indian Community would be largely the same, according to Jason Hauter, a tribal member who represents the GRIC as an attorney…
But a Tier 3 shortage is far from the worst-case scenario, because declining streamflows could push the level of Lake Mead below the 1,025-foot mark — a situation left unaddressed by the Drought Contingency Plan. While the chances of Lake Mead reaching critically low levels seemed remote when planning efforts began, projections released by Reclamation last month indicate there is a 66 percent chance the reservoir falls below 1,025 feet by 2025.
Falling below that level would trigger additional cutbacks, which would likely include curtailing tribal water deliveries from the CAP. And, because tribes on the CAP are allowed to lease their water rights directly to municipalities, future reductions to tribal water could also impact the water-supply holdings of cities and towns throughout central Arizona.
If Lake Mead were to fall below 900 feet, it would elicit the disaster scenario known as “dead pool,” in which water would no longer flow through Hoover Dam, cutting off the lower basin and shutting down a hydroelectric plant that provides electricity for millions of people in the Southwest.
Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community, said via email that the tribe is committed to working with other stakeholders in the basin to avoid that fate.
But, as hydrological conditions in the basin continue to worsen, deeper cuts seem inevitable…
For thousands of years before the first concrete dams were built on the Colorado, the Mojave people — or AhaMacav, which means “people of the river” — maintained large settlements on either side of the surging stream. In 1865, the U.S. government lumped members of the Mojave and Chemehuevi tribes together to form the Colorado River Indian Tribes, or CRIT, which later came to include Navajo and Hopi families.
The CRIT’s water rights were quantified as part of Arizona v. California, the series of U.S. Supreme Court cases beginning in the 1930s that dealt with water disputes between the two states. Along with confirming the rights of the five mainstream tribes in the lower basin, the case also established the standard of determining tribal entitlements based on a tribe’s “practicably irrigable acreage.”
The tribe’s history of agriculture, including an 80,000-acre irrigation project built by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, enabled the CRIT to secure annual diversion rights of more than 700,000 acre-feet, the largest entitlement of any tribe in the basin. Although the CRIT uses a large portion of its water for farming and agriculture, much of its entitlements in both Arizona and California go unused — a fortunate fact for farmers in central Arizona.
The tribe has employed a number of creative approaches to generate revenue using its reserved water rights, including discontinuing certain existing water uses on tribal land, and using the water that is conserved to prop up levels in Lake Mead.
The tribe has agreed to fallow a portion of its historically irrigated farmland over the next three years, conserving a total of 150,000 acre-feet of water that will be left in Lake Mead. For its help in minimizing cutbacks for lower-priority users — such as agriculture served by the CAP — the tribe is receiving $38 million, mostly from the state of Arizona.
Margaret Vick, an attorney for the CRIT, said that although the tribe is well-positioned to contribute conservation water, its ability to benefit from other types of off-reservation uses are limited. Unlike tribes with water settlements, she said, the CRIT’s decreed water rights generally prohibit the tribe from directly leasing its water to off-reservation users. The tribe proposed federal legislation last year that would allow it to market some of its Arizona allocation, but the bill hasn’t been introduced in Congress, Vick said.
Although the CRIT’s water rights are quantified and it has enough water to contribute to Mead, the tribe has historically suffered from a lack of funding for necessary infrastructure — something that is often negotiated as part of a water settlement, Vick said. According to the Tribal Water Study, parts of the federal irrigation project were built in the late 1800s, and suffer from “design limitations and simple aging problems,” such as unlined canals and deteriorating gates.
Weiner, the attorney for the Quechan tribe, said that while each tribe is in a different situation, they generally agree on the need for more flexibility in the legal framework that governs the river…
Despite the challenges facing tribes in the basin, tribal leaders and water managers see opportunities for solutions that would help alleviate some of the water-supply pressures on non-Native stakeholders while enabling the tribes to benefit from their water. And, regardless of the water management decisions that are made going forward, the tribes want a seat at the table.
Tribal leaders often lament the lack of tribal consultation that occurs when federal or state governments make decisions that impact tribal resources. Secretary Haaland has emphasized the importance of tribal engagement during her time leading the Interior Department, but the level of tribal involvement in the basin’s next round of drought planning remains to be seen.
Noting the importance of cooperation between basin stakeholders, Becker, the attorney for the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, said the ongoing shortage should also serve as a reminder that water is not simply a commodity, but a vital substance on which our survival depends.
Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1315 cfs to 1050 cfs late on Wednesday, October 6th. Releases are being decreased to bring an end to the Drought Response Operations Agreement (DROA) emergency releases to Lake Powell.
Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 790 cfs. River flows are expected to stay at levels above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.
Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 790 cfs for October and November.
Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 700 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are 590 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be around 700 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will be near 325 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
An Interior Department official speaking Friday at a local forum voiced concern about continuing falling Lake Powell water levels that now pose the possibility of threatening hydroelectric power production at Glen Canyon Dam as early as next year.
Tanya Trujillo, Interior assistant secretary for water and science, addressed the topic during the Colorado River District’s annual water seminar, which was held at Colorado Mesa University and also in a virtual format. Some of the events involved simulcast presentations with the Getches-Wilkinson Center at the Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment at the University of Colorado Law School, which also was holding its own water conference this week.
Trujillo noted that last week, the Bureau of Reclamation indicated the potential of water levels at Lake Powell falling below the minimum power pool level of 3,490 feet above sea level as early as next July if the current streak of extremely dry hydrology continues into next year.
Beyond next year, Reclamation says there’s a 25-35% chance of Powell falling below that level over the next few years. Trujillo also noted that there is about a 90% chance that Powell’s water level over the next year will fall below the 3,525-foot elevation established to provide a protective buffer above the minimum power pool amount needed to produce electricity.
Trujillo called that prediction “very concerning” and said she’s particularly nervous about concerns related to the operational integrity at the dam due to low water levels.
“The engineers use words like cavitation and that gets my attention,” she said.
Cavitation can occur when oxygen mixes with water as levels drop, posing a threat of damage to power turbines. Lost power production also would result in lost revenue that pays for programs like salinity control and endangered-fish recovery in the Colorado River Basin. Also, if water could be released only through the dam’s bypass tubes and not through the power plant, that could threaten the ability of water to be delivered to downstream states at volumes required by a 1922 [Colorado River Compact].
Under provisions of a 2019 agreement, the Bureau of Reclamation began releasing water from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs with the goal of providing up to 181,000 acre-feet of water to Powell by the end of this year. Trujillo said she’s happy that talks continue among Colorado and other states in the Upper Colorado River Basin regarding additional drought-response measures…
Below-average precipitation last winter was aggravated this year by factors such as warmer temperatures and dry soil conditions that resulted in even worse runoff levels. Gigi Richard, director of the Four Corners Water Center and an instructor at Fort Lewis College, said at Friday’s forum that the region is starting to experience novel forms of drought, such as ones where, due to higher temperatures, drought conditions prevail after a normal amount of seasonal snowpack accumulation.
Thankfully, she said, monsoonal moisture this summer relieved drought conditions in the region somewhat.
A La Niña climatological pattern that is setting up for this winter could result in storms tracking further north, which Richard said might mean less precipitation in Colorado, but she said individual storms still can result in a significant amount of moisture in a given year.
Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist/scholar at Colorado State University, said reductions in annual precipitation in the months of March and April are aggravating the increased aridification occurring in the region, setting up a process of further drying out land in the summer when there are higher temperatures and reduced precipitation.
He’s also concerned by what he sees as a general trend of more aggravated declines in average streamflows in more southern river basins in the region during this century when compared to the period of 1906-1999. Flows in the San Juan River at Bluff, Utah, have fallen 30%, and flows of the Dolores River near Cisco, Utah, have fallen 21%.
Flows for the mainstem of the Colorado River are down around 5%, he said…
Trujillo said the federal government will be advocating for water conservation in all sectors, with opportunities ranging from more water reuse/recycling to irrigation efficiency…
Andy Mueller, general manager of the river district, mentioned conservation opportunities ranging from replacing Kentucky bluegrass lawns with native vegetation, to farmers and ranchers potentially being willing to remove irrigation from marginal lands.
He called on various interests not to turn against each other as sometimes happens in societies when a resource gets scarce.
The risk of lower and lower water levels in Lake Powell and other reservoirs in the Colorado River Basin keep getting higher and higher.
An analysis by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released Sept. 22 finds an elevated risk of 25% to 35% of the water level in Powell falling below the minimum power pool by July 2022.
Minimum power pool is the level below which there is insufficient power to produce electricity.
The drought began in 2000, but as several studies have concluded that drought fails to fully describe what is happening in the river basin. Those studies point to rising temperatures that have produced aridification. Even with the same volume of water falling from the sky, less of it will become river water.
As an Aug. 24 article in Science magazine pointed out, about 17% of baseline precipitation ended up in the Colorado River in the 1930s and ‘40s, with a majority of that water coming from Colorado in the form of snowmelt. Today, it’s about 14%.
Since July, the Bureau of Reclamation began releasing water from its smaller reservoirs upstream of Powell—Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo—with the hope of augmenting Powell sufficiently. The headwaters states for the Colorado River had an exceptionally dry spring, exactly opposite of what was happening east of the Continental Divide in Colorado. The runoff into Lake Powell was 26% of average, despite near-average snowfall last winter.
otal storage in the Colorado River reservoirs today is 39% of capacity, down from 49% at this time last year.
John Fleck, writing on his website, Inkstain, called the latest announcement “something remarkable.” The government predictions used something pioneered a decade by Eric Kuhn and Dave Kanzer of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District along with John Carron of Boulder-based Hydros Consulting. They thought it not useful to base predicts on the full hydrologic record of the Colorado River going back to 1906. Instead, they said, better would be to use a short-term frame, the last 30 years. They call it the stress test.
“The idea is that the traditional approach—using the entire period of record to model the probabilities of future river flows—is no longer valid because climate change is changing the river,” he explained.
From Allen’s latest newsletter:
The letter finally arrived. The Internal Revenue Service has recognized Big Pivots as a 501(c)3 non-profit.
Precious little journalistic income has rolled in the door during the last two years. This will help immediately. Two grants previously rewarded can be realized. Together, they’re a strong start. In coming weeks, I will return to you with suggestions about how you might want to assist the forward movement of Big Pivots.
I also want to recognize two “advertisers” in this issue of Pivots. Mike Foote, a former state senator from Erie, has a law office specializing in land and water. His is a sponsorship ad, meaning he has his name and website but mostly he’s saying he wants Big Pivots to go forward.
Might others want to do so also?
There’s also an advertisement from Colorado Solar and Storage Association about their November conference (and discount on registration if you say Big Pivots).
Then there was a reader from North Park who, after the last issue, sent this message.
“I just have to tell you how much I learn from every issue. I’m printing this one out as as write,” wrote Debby Burnett, whose home lies near the Wyoming border. She was hoping to mount a campaign against U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert. “I’ve been faithfully reading every issue of yours to make sure I can communicate effectively about the issues facing Colorado, specifically rural Western Colorado. … I will continue to scour each issue for the incredible nuggets of information you’ve packed onto every page.”
In this endeavor, many days have felt uncertain. That day was bright.
Opinion: The chances are increasing for lakes Mead and Powell to reach dangerously low levels. There are basically two solutions, and neither will be easy.
Lake Mead and Lake Powell are in trouble.
It’s hard to view the latest five-year projections released from the federal Bureau of Reclamation any other way.
At Lake Mead – the reservoir Arizona depends on for about 40% of its water supply – there is now a 66% chance of falling below 1,025 feet of elevation in 2025. And a 41% chance of enacting a Tier 3 shortage that year, the worst for which we have planned and one that would begin cutting into the supplies that feed metro Phoenix’s major cities.
That’s up from a 25% chance in April.
There also is a 1 in 5 chance of dipping below 1,000 feet of elevation in 2025, a dangerously low level that would likely force Hoover Dam, which supplies hydropower to 1.3 million people, to cease production.
The scenarios are just as bad on Lake Powell – or maybe worse, considering it is facing the possibility of turning off its generators much sooner. There is an 88% chance of dipping below 3,525 feet of elevation next year (a buffer meant to help protect power production) and a 1 in 3 chance of falling below 3,490 feet in 2023 – the point at which power can no longer be generated.
That would cause immediate problems for the 5 million people that rely on this power, not to mention nix revenues from generation that are used to fund a slew of programs along the Colorado River.
This forecast is our ‘new normal’
It’s important to understand how Reclamation arrived at these projections. The agency has in recent years begun using what’s called the “stress test hydrology” in its modeling, which is based on runoff for the last three decades or so.
But until this forecast, that hydrology was used as a supplement. The model also included projections based on the “full hydrology,” which also includes decades of unusually wet years.
The September update includes only the stress test – which as water blogger John Fleck noted, makes it the “new normal.”
The stress test is hardly the worst-case scenario for the Colorado River. Some consider it more of the middle-of-the-road view – not the hotter, drier future we are expected to experience (and may already now be experiencing), thanks to climate change.
Still, it’s a more realistic forecast that should help us get a better handle on how extensive the problem is and what we must do to fix it.
Mead is tanking because Powell is tanking
Mead is in trouble because Powell is in trouble.
Low inflows plus steady demand for the water have drained Powell far quicker than most folks imagined. Mead relies on annual releases from this upstream reservoir to stay somewhat stable, and because Powell is so low, the most likely scenario for the next few years involves a much smaller release (7.48 million acre-feet, as compared to the 8.23 million acre-feet we typically receive).
Those forecast lower releases have already triggered a provision requiring the lower basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada to decide what additional steps they’ll take to prop up lake levels.
Tom Buschatzke, Arizona’s water department director, has said there are basically two options, given the urgency: Either we agree to deeper, more painful cuts, or we find others willing to voluntarily store more water in the lake to cushion the blow.
Neither is a long-term solution, but that’s not the goal. It’s simply to buy time while we figure out how to sustain ourselves given this new, drier reality.
We need more than a Band-Aid to stabilize the lakes
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is.
Mead was facing roughly a 1 in 5 chance of dipping below 1,000 feet before we passed the Drought Contingency Plan in 2019. And make no mistake: Were it not for that plan, we would be in much worse shape today.
But its million acre-feet in cuts has always been a Band-Aid – one that, unfortunately, has not protected the wound long enough to even begin to heal.
If anything, Reclamation’s latest forecast is proof that we must do more to ensure that what we consume from the Colorado River better matches what the river can realistically produce now.
Other modeling has suggested that we could find that equilibrium if the upper basin states agree not to grow their water usage, as they have long planned, and the lower basin remains in roughly a Tier 3 shortage from here on out.
FromThe Walton Family Foundation (Moira Mcdonald):
In the Colorado River Basin, the Walton Family Foundation is committed to ensuring a healthier watershed with improved flows that help the region adapt to climate change
The future of the American West depends on water – on having enough of this scarce resource to sustain the region’s growing population and maintain a healthy environment.
In the face of extreme droughts in the Colorado River Basin, the threat of water shortages is real and immediate. And the need to find solutions so people and nature can thrive together has never been more urgent.
Even as climate change portends a hotter, drier future for the Colorado River, we believe there are practical reasons to be hopeful and take action to protect the region’s water.
When the seven Colorado River Basin states signed a historic drought plan two years ago, they sealed a conservation victory to manage the water supply, and end chronic overuse of the river. A separate agreement between the U.S. and Mexico ensures additional water efficiency while also providing water explicitly for the river and habitat restoration.
The Walton Family Foundation supported both of those agreements and we will continue to support water conservation measures that help us all find a pathway through coming water shortages.
In the foundation’s new five-year Environment program strategy, we will increase our efforts to get more water into the Colorado River and its tributaries by supporting natural infrastructure projects throughout the basin. By working with nature, rather than against it, we can build healthier watersheds with improved flows that help us adapt to climate change.
To confront the challenges facing the Colorado River, we will increase engagement with communities across the region – including ranchers, tribal leaders, and local communities – to improve the health of nature and create long-term, collaborative plans for smart water management.
We’re also working with partners looking for ways to increase the use of nature-based solutions and innovative practices that use less water and leave more water in the river. We see progress in places like Arizona’s Verde River, a Colorado River tributary, where farmers are shifting production from water-intensive crops like alfalfa and finding new markets for barley, which requires less water and improves river flows.
Because we believe those closest to the water challenges in the Colorado River Basin are closest to the solution, we’re working more intentionally with community organizations and increasing outreach to diverse constituencies who deserve a greater voice in water management decisions that impact them.
It’s said that necessity is the mother of invention. There are no easy solutions to the water challenges now gripping parts of the West. But we believe the urgency of this moment can be a catalyst for creativity and collaboration that ensures a secure and stable water future for the region.
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Becki Bryant and Patti Aaron):
The Bureau of Reclamation today [September 22, 2021] released updated modeling projections of major reservoir levels within the Colorado River system over the next five years. These projections are used by Reclamation and water users in the basin for future water management planning. The new projections show continued elevated risk of Lake Powell and Lake Mead reaching critically-low elevations as a result of the historic drought and low-runoff conditions in the Colorado River Basin.
Today’s announcement comes as the Administration pursues a whole-of-government approach to drought mitigation via the Interagency Drought Relief Working Group, co-chaired by the Department of the Interior. The Working Group is coordinating with partners across the federal government, providing assistance to impacted communities, and developing long-term solutions to climate change.
Lake Powell Projections
At Lake Powell, the projections indicate the potential of falling below minimum power pool as early as July 2022 should extremely dry hydrology continue into next year. Beyond 2022, the chance Lake Powell could fall below minimum power pool ranges from about 25% to 35%. Elevation 3,525 feet, the target elevation in Lake Powell, has an almost 90% chance of being reached next year. That target elevation provides a 35 vertical-foot buffer designed to minimize the risk of dropping below the minimum power pool elevation of 3,490 feet and balances the need to protect the infrastructure at Glen Canyon Dam and meet current operational obligations to the Lower Basin States of Arizona, California and Nevada.
“The latest outlook for Lake Powell is troubling,” said Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Basin Regional Director Wayne Pullan. “This highlights the importance of continuing to work collaboratively with the Basin States, Tribes and other partners toward solutions.”
After consultation with – and acknowledgement from – all seven Basin States and other partners, under the emergency provisions of the 2019 Drought Response Operations Agreement (DROA), Reclamation started supplemental water deliveries in July 2021 to Lake Powell from the upper reservoirs of Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo. Those supplemental deliveries will provide up to an additional 181 thousand acre-feet of water to Lake Powell by the end of the 2021.
As the Upper Basin States continue to work towards the development of a Drought Operations plan that will govern potential future supplemental deliveries, previous modeling assumptions regarding any additional or continued DROA releases have been removed to provide a clearer representation of future risk. The removal of these assumptions was the main contributor in the increase in risk between the last set of projections released in June of this year.
Lake Mead Projections
At Lake Mead, today’s projections indicate the chance of Lake Mead declining to elevation 1,025 feet (the third shortage trigger) is as high as 66% in 2025, and that there is a 22% chance of the reservoir elevation dropping to 1,000 feet the same year.
Reclamation continues to work with all seven Colorado River Basin States to address current conditions in the Colorado River Basin.
“This five-year probability table underscores the need for additional actions beyond the 2007 Guidelines and the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan to be taken to enhance our efforts to protect Lake Mead, Lake Powell and the Colorado River system overall,” said Tom Buschatzke, Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
Most of the flow of the Colorado River originates in the Rocky Mountains. The Upper Basin experienced an exceptionally dry spring in 2021, with April to July runoff into Lake Powell totaling just 26% of average, despite near-average snowfall last winter. Total Colorado River system storage today is 39% of capacity, down from 49% at this time last year.
Today’s release also includes updated presentations that utilize additional forecast information to improve public understanding of Reclamation’s future hydrologic projections. In keeping with its commitment to better inform all water users and the public regarding the hydrologic tools available, Reclamation has added in-depth information on its website about modeling and projections in the Colorado River system. A new interactive tool also allows users to explore projected reservoir conditions under a range of inflow forecasts.
“We’re providing detailed information on our modeling and projections to further generate productive discussions about the future of Lake Powell and Lake Mead based on the best data available,” said Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Basin Regional Director Jacklynn Gould. “Being prepared to adopt further actions to protect the elevations at these reservoirs remains a Reclamation priority and focus.”
Utah’s drought-induced water crisis has softened somewhat after a string of monsoons, but the state’s water supplies are far from safe, with reservoirs across the state falling below 40% full, state officials told lawmakers Tuesday. Only a massive snowpack this winter can assure adequate supplies going into next year, and even then, Utah’s water future remains uncertain in the face of long-term drought and climate change.
In July the entire state was in extreme or exceptional drought and Utah’s two largest lakes hit their lowest levels ever…
“We are setting all the wrong records,” Candice Hasenyager, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, told the Legislative Water Development Commission. “Then came August. We had some great monsoon season, which we didn’t receive the previous year.”
August precipitation was four times normal in many places…
All eyes are fixated on the Colorado River, a water source that supplies much of the American Southwest. Its flows have diminished so much after 20 years of drought and warming temperatures that a shortage was declared last month in the river’s Lower Basin States and Utah’s Lake Powell is looking more like a puddle than the nation’s second-largest reservoir.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation has forecast that by next May the lake will fall to the point where hydropower cannot be generated at Glen Canyon Dam, said Gene Shawcroft, Utah’s Colorado River Authority commissioner. To reduce the risk of that happening, the bureau is releasing 181,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge and two other Upper Basin reservoirs this summer and fall…
Describing himself as an optimist, [Carl] Albrecht said he believes the West’s drought will end and Utah should position itself to capture the water when heavy snows return…
Zach Frankel of the Utah Rivers Council pushed back, arguing that Utah’s water needs will decline as water-intensive agriculture is displaced by the very growth Albrecht described.
“We’re converting our farmland to blacktop, subdivisions, shopping malls and homes. And because municipal lands use less water per acre than agricultural lands, it’s leading to a growth in our water supply,” Frankel said.
He said you will find eight pages of water rights posted for sale on KSL.com, showing a vibrant market for water that’s available along the Wasatch Front.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) shared alarming news this year about the unprecedented conditions on the Colorado River. The agency, which oversees federal water management across 17 western states, publishes some pretty wonky information, even for those of us who regularly interface with this agency and rely on its analyses.
However, in June, Reclamation shared its new, five-year projections for the Colorado River Basin. It shares these projections a few times every year to assist drought management within the Basin. This time, the news was big: the water situation on the Colorado River is worse than folks anticipated when adopting the shared shortage agreements called the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plans (DCPs) adopted in 2019.
To jump to the conclusion: Reclamation’s projections signal that we urgently need to do more than the DCPs envisioned because of the increasingly hot and dry conditions in the basin. Reclamation has continued to revise its projections throughout this shockingly dry spring, resulting in really dire projections for water storage and distribution. In other words, less water for people, and less water in streams that benefit birds, fish, and a robust recreational economy.
We’ve arrived at the time when the limits of the Colorado River are being reached.
What does this mean for birds? Birds rely on the riparian habitats of the Colorado River and its tributaries, and aquatic birds have come to rely on the big reservoirs on the river, too. Surveys of aquatic birds at Lake Powell have documented dabbling ducks, diving species, shorebirds, and more. American Coot and Western Grebe are common. Gadwall, Common Goldeneye, Redhead, and Green-winged Teal have also been observed. The habitats created by Lake Powell have existed for less than 60 years and can change with the lake level, which can affect birds.
You may recall that the main reservoirs on the highly-plumbed Colorado River—Lake Powell and Lake Mead—sometimes “equalize” in water accounting flows. Lake Powell is the receiving reservoir from the Upper Basin states (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico) meaning that it stores water that runs downstream from these states. Lake Mead is the distributing reservoir for the Lower Basin states (Arizona, Nevada, and California) and Mexico meaning that water deliveries to each of these places comes from available water in this lake (and legal water rights, of course). The amount of water in Lake Mead—the largest reservoir in the country—determines how much water a state has available for its Colorado River water users.
Reclamation projects that Lake Mead water levels are, for the first time ever, so low that they will require cuts in water Lower Basin water deliveries, operating in a Tier 1 shortage. And the agency says there is a greater than 99 percent chance of this shortage continuing into 2022 and a high risk (greater than 80 percent probability) that Lake Mead will remain under shortage operations for at least the next five years, perhaps with even more aggressive cuts.
Severe drought conditions are also triggering an emergency response with the release of water from reservoirs further upstream to address declining water levels at Lake Powell and protect the ability of the Glen Canyon Dam to generate hydropower. Representatives from Reclamation and the Upper Basin states just announced they will release water from Flaming Gorge and other reservoirs.
If we have another bad water year, elevations at Lake Mead could even be lower than before Lake Powell was created. It’s getting to the bottom for both of these reservoirs.
Why does this matter? These unprecedented and exceptional drought conditions are a signal to all of us to take steps to ensure the river flows long into the future and address water security for people and wildlife. Climate change is here and the entire Colorado River Basin is in crisis.
We have a very limited window to begin implementing innovative tools that are at our disposal in order to adapt to and mitigate climate change. In addition to reductions in carbon emissions and other large-scale solutions for our planet, Audubon continues to focus on federal and state investments in climate resilient strategies that will help stabilize water supplies and better assist economic sectors and ecosystems adapt to changing conditions. Future water projections by Reclamation – and future agreements on the Colorado River – need to account for climate extremes.
The effects of prolonged drought and climate change affect everyone in the basin. Our ways of life are at stake—millions of acres of farmland and ranches, urban and rural communities, recreation on rivers and lakes, our economies, as well as incredible bird life. Our work is more urgent and more difficult.
The Eagle River Watershed Council on Tuesday hosted a hike for the public in the Homestake Valley, an area receiving increased scrutiny because of a project that proposes to take more water from the Colorado River basin and bring it to the fast-growing Front Range.
The goal of the event — which included presentations from representatives from public-lands conservation group Wilderness Workshop, municipal water provider Aurora Water and other experts — was to provide a broad overview of a complicated issue, according to watershed council executive director Holly Loff.
“We know it’s going to be a long process, but we want to make sure people are engaged in the conversation and look to us as a resource,” Loff said. “We will continue to provide science-based, factual information.”
The watershed council advocates for the health of the upper Colorado and Eagle river watersheds through research, education and projects, according to its website.
The cities of Colorado Springs and Aurora, which operate together as Homestake Partners, have water rights in the Homestake Valley and plan to use them to develop Whitney Reservoir. The project would be located near the Holy Cross Wilderness Area, which is 6 miles south of Red Cliff. Homestake Partners is currently doing geotechnical drilling to study whether the soil and bedrock in the area could support a dam and reservoir.
The proposed project would create a new reservoir on lower Homestake Creek, where water collected would be pumped up to the existing Homestake Reservoir, about 5 miles upstream. Then it would go through a tunnel under the Continental Divide to Turquoise Reservoir, near Leadville, and then to Aurora and Colorado Springs. Various configurations of four potential reservoir sites show it holding between 6,850 and 20,000 acre-feet of water.
Although it’s still early in the process and no application for the storage project has yet been filed, the proposal has already been met with opposition. Some iterations of the project would necessitate moving a section of the Holy Cross Wilderness boundary, which requires an act of Congress, and would inundate rare, groundwater-fed, peat wetlands, known as fens. The U.S. Forest Service received nearly 800 comments about the drilling study during its public scoping phase last year, and the majority of the remarks were against the reservoir project as a whole.
Some who attended the hike — which attracted about 20 people — questioned the concept of taking more water from the headwaters of the Colorado River over to thirsty and growing Front Range cities in the face of a climate change-fueled crisis.
“I’m just very concerned that if this is a typical year, is there enough water in the drainage to take 20,000 acre-feet out every year and how does that tie into the future curtailment call on the Colorado Compact?” said Tom Allender, who is board president of the watershed council, a former board member of Eagle River Water & Sanitation District and a retired planner for Vail Resorts.
The compact call to which Allender is referring could occur if the upper-basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) can’t deliver the 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the lower basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada), as required by a nearly century-old binding agreement. Water users in the upper basin would be forced to cut back, something known as “curtailment.”
A larger share of the state’s cutback obligations could fall to Front Range water providers since most of the water rights that let them divert water from the Colorado River basin over the Continental Divide are “junior” to the compact, meaning they date to after the 1922 agreement. If there was a compact call, Front Range diverters could potentially have to stop diverting and let the water flow downstream to Lake Powell.
“If the Homestake Valley is important to people and if they are interested in the impacts of a compact call and the impacts of climate change overall, then they should have an eye out for additional transmountain diversions,” Loff said. “That’s a bigger concern than a reservoir in general.”
Last year, Homestake Partners tested how they could get their stored water to the state line in the event of a compact call by releasing downstream about 1,700 acre-feet from Homestake Reservoir.
Eagle River MOU
Homestake Partners is not the only entity set to benefit from a new water-storage project. The Eagle River memorandum of understanding lays out a plan for both Front Range and Western Slope entities to develop water in the upper Eagle River basin. The agreement, signed in 1998, provides 20,000 acre-feet of water a year to Homestake Partners and 10,000 acre-feet a year to the Colorado River Water Conservation District, the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority, and Vail Resorts, known collectively in the MOU as the “Reservoir Company.”
Ken Neubecker, a retired Colorado project director at American Rivers and a former environmental representative on the Colorado Basin Roundtable, gave an overview of the MOU. He said the 23-year-old agreement is based on hydrology that is now outdated because of the worsening impacts of climate change. The models used to estimate streamflows are based on records from the 50 years between 1945 and 1994.
“Storage is an early-20th-century response to water-shortage problems and doesn’t really fit in the conditions we are facing now in the 21st century, and it’s based on laws established in the 19th century,” Neubecker said.
In their presentation, representatives from Aurora Water laid out the measures that the municipality is taking to conserve water, including offering rebates for high-efficiency toilets, water-wise landscaping and irrigation efficiency. Over 10 years, Aurora says it has conserved almost a half-billion gallons, or about 1,500 acre-feet.
That savings, however, does not translate into Aurora taking less water from the Western Slope. About 25,000 acre-feet of water a year is sent through Homestake Tunnel to the Front Range.
“We are a growing community,” said Greg Baker, manager of public relations for Aurora Water. “Our conservation program helps us meet that future need the development is going to place on our system. Does it reduce (transmountain diversions)? No. Does it mean we are using the water more efficiently? Yes.”
Baker said there are still a lot of uncertainties with the Whitney Reservoir project. The geotechnical drilling study will help determine whether it is even feasible to move ahead.
“We have not applied current climatological conditions to (the MOU) yet because we haven’t gotten that far,” he said. “Until we know exactly what comes out of that report, we can’t say what we would want to pursue. It’s way too early for us to even come up with that timeline.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Vail Daily and other Swift Communications newspapers. For more, go to http://www.aspenjournalism.org.
Back when the Colorado River Compact was being negotiated about 100 years ago, water was not viewed as a problem. Officials deemed there was plenty to go around.
Fast forward a century and the seven Colorado River Basin states – particularly the three lower basin states of California, Arizona, and Nevada – are using more than the system can sustain. Nowhere is this more evident than on the chalk-white dry rims of Lakes Mead and Powell, the two large reservoirs on the system that some fear will hit catastrophically low levels in the next couple years.
Chris Harris, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California, says the basin states must grapple with the “new normal” of reduced flows in a river system once thought to provide ample water for the West…
The 14maf annual average is bookmarked by years of plenty – 15 of them over the last century at over 20maf. Conversely, 44 of those years, or nearly half of that period, produced under 14maf of natural flow at the Lees Ferry Gaging Station in Arizona.
Viewed another way, Harris points to data that show the worst hydrology years on record since 1906 are all in the 21st Century…
The vulnerability of the Colorado River system was seen in a 2012 basin study report showing the average annual natural flow at Lee Ferry of 13.8maf. Some years were much less.
When California alone has access to 4.4 maf and there are years when the unregulated flow into Lake Powell in the upper Colorado River basin is at or below 5maf, “the math doesn’t add up,” he said.
Climate scientists similarly point to water scarcity because of severe drought, and the need for the basin states to “pull together, and that includes California.” Not only must water managers and urban planners consider water-short years that challenge supply, they must manage for the extreme rain events that can damage and destroy flood control infrastructure…
By 2019 California’s use of the Colorado River had fallen to 3.85maf and the following year California had about 1.4maf of “intentionally created storage” (ICS) water banked in Lake Mead for years like the current. This created concerns in Arizona and Nevada as Lake Mead continued to fall and officials there tried to slow the inevitable Tier 1 shortage call by encouraging MWD to not take all its saved water from Lake Mead.
Because California also has access to [Central Valley Project and State Water Project] water, Harris said there are huge incentives for water management there to become sustainable and reduce demand for the Colorado River.
“You take an entity like the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), which gets about 2.2maf from the State Water Project; they got 100,000-acre feet this year from the State of California,” he said.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
Colorado water managers unhappy with timing of emergency releases
In an effort to prop up water levels at the declining Lake Powell, federal water managers are negatively impacting recreation on Colorado’s biggest man-made lake.
That’s the message from Colorado water managers and marina operators at Blue Mesa Reservoir in Gunnison County. On Aug. 1, the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the reservoir, began emergency releases. By the time the releases are finished the first week of October, Blue Mesa is projected to fall to its second-lowest level ever, just 215,000 acre-feet, or 22.8% of its 941,000-acre-foot capacity.
As of Sept. 1, the reservoir was 37% full, which is about 68 feet down from a full reservoir, and a ring of muddy shoreline was growing. Parking lots and boat slips sat empty, and Pappy’s Restaurant was closed for the season. The dwindling water levels are first impacting Iola, the easternmost of Blue Mesa’s three basins. Iola is where the Gunnison River now cuts through a field of mud.
Eric Loken, who operates the reservoir’s two marinas (Elk Creek and Lake Fork), said he was given only nine days’ notice to empty Elk Creek Marina’s 180 slips. The dock system’s anchors, which are not built for low water, had to be moved deeper. He said about 25 people lost their jobs six weeks earlier than normal and the marinas lost about 25% of its revenue for the year.
Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:
In any given year of late, demands for water in the Colorado River Basin exceed supply. Chronic drought, record heat, and rampant wildfires are already affecting the Basin’s overall health and resilience, and the historically low levels in Lakes Mead and Powell have caused an unprecedented call on the river. These historic challenges come at a time when several key components of the “Law of the River” are sunsetting in 2026. Key players are already revisiting the 2007 Interim Guidelines, Minute 323, and the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan. Relatedly, endangered fish recovery programs relevant to the region expire in 2023. Meanwhile, 48% of Tribal households in the U.S. do not have access to reliable water sources, clean drinking water, or basic sanitation. These harsh realities hasten the need to advance sustainable water management, improve watershed resilience, and ensure clean water access through collaborative decision-making. We look forward to bringing together diverse expertise and perspectives from across the region to draw the roadmap to an equitable future in the Colorado River Basin.
Part 1: Universal Access to Clean Water on Tribal Lands (Thursday morning)
Part 2: Ecosystem Health of the Colorado River Basin (Thursday afternoon)
Part 3: CRB Hydrology & Management Guideline Renegotiations (*Friday)
Wednesday, September 29
Wolf Law Building, Schaden Commons
We look forward to reconnecting with friends and colleagues, as well as
celebrating the 25-year career of Dr. Doug Kenney who retired at the end of 2020.
41st Annual Colorado Law Conference on Natural Resources
Thursday, September 30 and Friday, October 1
9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.
Wolf Law Building, Wittemyer Courtroom
From the Environmental Defense Fund (Christopher Kuzdas):
In June, a portion of my neighborhood in Flagstaff, Arizona, was put on pre-evacuation notice due to a nearby wildfire. A few weeks later, storms dumped heavy rains over a burn scar from a 2019 fire that caused destructive floods through parts of town. So far, this summer has been our third-wettest monsoon season on record, a complete contrast from our two driest monsoon seasons on record in 2019 and 2020.
These extremes are just a few local examples of the havoc that climate change is causing around the world. Here in the West, we are now in uncharted territory with the first-ever shortage declaration on the Colorado River.
What the shortage declaration means
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation recently confirmed the Colorado River will be operated under never-before-used shortage rules, called a “tier 1” shortage, starting in 2022.
Under the rules defined by the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), other agreements and the river’s operating guidelines, Arizona will absorb the brunt of this shortage. About one-third less water will flow through the Central Arizona Project canal to the Phoenix and Tucson areas, primarily impacting farmers. Nevada and Mexico will also see mandatory but smaller water cuts.
Even more concerning are water supply projections for 2023 and beyond.
Bureau of Reclamation projections forecast Lake Mead could fall close to a threshold where there are no rules outlining additional water cuts to avoid a crash to dead pool — when no water can flow out of Hoover Dam. This risk of an acceleration in plummeting water levels — which also jeopardizes water levels in Lake Powell — has prompted basin state representatives to initiate meetings to discuss additional actions that might be needed if water levels in Lake Mead fall below 1,020 feet.
It will get hotter and drier
This unprecedented situation offers a glimpse into our future. Warming scenarios from the latest IPCC report suggest that we could exceed 2 degrees Celsius of warming around midcentury, with more than 5 degrees by the end of the century, in the absence of action to curb carbon emissions.
Why does this matter for the Colorado River? Colorado River flows are highly sensitive to warming, and aridification caused by climate change is already reducing the water flowing in the river. With each additional 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming, the Colorado River’s average flow drops by 9.3%, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Colorado River flows could be up to one-third less than the current average within a generation, unless meaningful and immediate reductions in carbon emissions are achieved.
The outlook for the Colorado River is overwhelming. But what our future looks like is still our choice. We can, and should, choose to pursue a just transition to a basin with significantly less water. While in no way comprehensive, below are four ways to get started on that path.
1. Reconcile water demand with our climate reality.
Reconciling demands with our climate reality, at the very least, will involve updating river operating rules, scaling up conservation programs and shifting away from outdated expansionism.
The rules that determine how we balance supply and demand, and the underlying rights and agreements that collectively determine who gets how much water and when, will play a major role in how we transition to a basin with less water.
River operating rules have become more flexible to some extent as they evolved through new agreements like the DCP. However, current river operating rules still don’t account for the full suite of climate change impacts, especially those impacts under more dire climate scenarios. While river operating rules are already a focus of discussion, updating them will require thoughtful leadership, as well as attention to climate and other social and environmental considerations.
Scaling up conservation programs such as system conservation in the Lower Basin and demand management in the Upper Basin will also play an important role. If not for water conserved in Lake Mead, a “tier 1” shortage would have occurred years ago. Our challenge moving forward will be expanding the scale and impact of these programs, and in the Upper Basin, moving much faster to do so.
To fully reconcile demands with our climate reality, we must also finally shift away from legacy expansionism and boosterism that still show up through unnecessary project proposals like the Lake Powell Pipeline. We can do more with less.
2. Address long-standing inequities.
Long-standing inequities should be addressed to ensure water security for all. Two of the many considerations are inclusive decision-making and fully recognizing tribal water rights.
Inclusive and transparent processes to make decisions are essential to developing solutions that account for multiple values and goals. In the past, decision-making was often exclusive and responded primarily to a narrow set of private interests. That is changing.
For example, Arizona’s DCP process included some tribes and conservation groups, and the process would not have been successful without the leadership of the Gila River Indian Community and the Colorado River Indian Tribes. More diversity at the table enables more creativity and better solutions.
Although the Colorado River Basin’s 30 sovereign Native American tribes have unique rights and claims to a significant portion of the Colorado River’s flow, not all are using their water for several reasons. Those reasons include aging or inadequate infrastructure; limited funding; and significant legal, policy and administrative barriers.
Overcoming such barriers to accessing Colorado River water and confirming and fulfilling tribal water rights will be critical for many tribes to achieve goals such as meeting basic water needs and securing livelihoods. Addressing those barriers is a step toward dealing with long-standing inequity and should be a priority for policymakers.
3. Take a whole-portfolio approach.
A whole-portfolio approach includes new watershed-focused actions to support communities in adapting to and mitigating the steadily compounding risks and extremes of climate change. The recently published Ten Strategies for Climate Resilience report describes a suite of local and watershed-scale projects to do just that, including forest health and restoration, naturally distributed storage, regenerative agriculture and new crop markets.
A whole-portfolio approach also necessitates adequate management and planning for our other water supplies. However, that’s not fully possible across a large part of the basin without changes in state-level water law and policy. For example, Arizona, which makes up almost half the landmass of the Colorado River Basin, already depends on groundwater for 40% of its annual water supply and will only become increasingly dependent on groundwater as Colorado River flows shrink. Arizona does not manage groundwater across most of the state, and local rural communities have little to no power to do so.
Changing this free-for-all approach to groundwater in rural Arizona is critical if we hope to have a water-secure future for all people in the basin.